THE WORLD; Jet skids off Brazil runway; nearly 200 feared dead

TAM Airbus 320 fails to navigate slick runway


A passenger plane slid off a rain-slicked runway here, smashed into a cargo terminal and caught fire Tuesday night, and nearly 200 people were feared dead.

Rescue workers said they believed all 176 people aboard the jet and at least 15 people on the ground had been killed. About a dozen injured were hospitalized.

The number of deaths, if confirmed, would make the crash the deadliest in Brazil's history.

"I was told that the temperature inside the plane was 1,000 degrees [Celsius], so the chances of there being any survivors are practically nil," Sao Paulo State Gov. Jose Serra said at the airport. A temperature of 1,000 degrees Celsius is 1,832 degrees Fahrenheit.

The TAM Airbus 320 took off from the southern city of Porto Alegre with 170 passengers and six crew members. Witnesses said it was attempting to land despite a severe-weather warning when it skidded off the runway at Congonhas International Airport, Brazil's busiest. It then sailed just above a busy highway, rammed a gas station and broke apart when it hit the three-story concrete cargo building, engulfing the structure in flames.

The fire spread to nearby homes.

The plane's massive tail lay askew in the wreckage, with the fuselage unrecognizable inside the building, hidden beneath clouds of black smoke.

Congonhas International lies in the heavily populated heart of South America's largest city, and the crash forced the evacuation of thousands of people as fires raged for hours.

Authorities were slow to release the names of the dead, angering more than 200 people who gathered at the airport in Porto Alegre seeking information on loved ones.

The airline later released a list of passengers. One was Julio Redecker, the minority leader of Brazil's lower house of Congress. He had been scheduled to leave Sao Paulo today for Washington to meet with U.S. Congress members.

Air traffic controllers directed the plane to land on the airport's recently repaved runway, which was cleared for landings just 18 days ago. Despite that clearance, the runway reportedly may not have been properly "grooved," a process that allows rain to be channeled away. Several pilots had complained about slick conditions, and a flight Monday skidded off the runway onto a grassy area.

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva declared three days of national mourning and canceled his scheduled appearances at the Pan American Games, which began last week in Rio de Janeiro.

A few months ago, officials tried to ban wide-bodied planes from using Congonhas because of the possibility that they would be unable to brake in time on the airport's short runways. And last month, two taxiing aircraft bumped wings.

Tuesday's crash was the latest in a series of incidents that has left Brazil's overtaxed air transportation industry reeling, leading to a congressional investigation. Ten months ago, a Gol Airlines Boeing SA 737 and an executive jet collided over the Amazon, killing all 154 people on the commercial flight.

On Monday, Infraero, a government-established agency that controls 67 civil airports in Brazil, narrowly avoided what could have been a crippling strike by reaching agreement on a 6% wage increase with the airport workers union.

The number of airline passengers in Brazil has grown nearly 50% since 2003 and the number of flights has grown nearly 8%, with little increase in infrastructure.

Special correspondent Soares reported from Sao Paulo and Times staff writer Baxter from Rio de Janeiro.

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Airbus A320

Passenger capacity: up to 180

Length: 123 ft. 3 in.

Wingspan: 111 ft. 10 in.

Range: 3,000 to 3,500 miles

Cruising speed: 575 mph

Max. fuel capacity: 6,300 gal.

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Sources: Airbus, e-flight.com

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