Friday, May 30, 2008

Grupo TACA passenger jet overshoots runway in Honduras; 2 dead, several hurt

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras, CBC NEWS Online - A Grupo TACA airplane overshot a runway and slammed to a stop on a city street Friday in the Honduran capital, leaving a pilot and a passenger dead and injuring several others.

Television images showed the plane's fuselage buckled and broken apart in places. The cockpit was smashed under a billboard, and firefighters hosed down at least two cars trapped under the plane's left engine.

More than 7,500 litres of jet fuel spilled out of the plane, and authorities tried to clear away hundreds of onlookers. "The airplane's fuel could cause an explosion, and that would be an even bigger tragedy," Security Ministry spokesman Ivan Mejia said.

"We landed ... and suddenly I heard a really strong, loud impact," passenger Roberto Sosa, 34, told The Associated Press.

Mirtila Lopez, 71, said she was talking to another passenger when the plane "left the runway, hit electric cables from a nearby street and then got stuck in the side of a small ravine."

Weather may have been a factor. The plane landed hours after the passage of tropical storm Alma, which dumped rain and left parts of the city shrouded in fog.

The flight left San Salvador at 8:30 a.m. local time carrying 124 passengers, mostly from Honduras, El Salvador and Costa Rica. It was scheduled to stop briefly in Tegucigalpa and in San Pedro Sula before heading to Miami.

Nicaraguan Harry Brautigam, president of the Tegucigalpa-based Central American Bank for Economic Integration since 2003, was on the plane and died of heart problems shortly after the crash, according to Tito Alvarado, the director of the hospital where he was treated. Cesar Villalta, director of Honduras' military hospital, confirmed that the plane's pilot was killed.

Officials have been struggling for years to replace aging Toncontin International Airport, whose short runway, primitive navigation equipment and neighboring hills make it one of the world's more dangerous landing strips. The airport was built on the southern edge of hilly Tegucigalpa in 1948 with a runway less than 1,600 meters long.

The altitude of some 1,000 metres forces pilots to use more runway on landings and takeoffs than they would at sea level. And because of the hills, pilots have to make an unusually steep approach.

The difficulties are complicated during Central America's frequent downpours, and during the springtime burning of farm fields, which produces smoke that often forces the airport to close for days at a time.

The worst crash associated with the airport came in 1989 when a Honduran airliner hit a nearby hill, killing 133 people.

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