Flames Engulf Indonesian 737, Killing 21

A packed jetliner crash-landed and erupted in flames Wednesday, killing at least 21 people trapped inside the burning wreckage. More than 115 others escaped through emergency exits as black smoke billowed behind them, officials and witnesses said.

Survivors said the Boeing 737-400 operated by the national carrier, Garuda, shook violently as it approached Yogyakarta airport too fast in clear weather. It shot off the runway, bouncing three times before plowing through a fence and coming to a halt in a rice field.

"Suddenly there was smoke inside the fuselage; it hit the runway and then it landed in a rice field," local Islamic leader Dien Syamsudin told El-Shinta radio station. "I saw a foreigner. His clothes were on fire and I jumped from the emergency exit. Thank God I survived."

An Italian survivor said the plane appeared to be going too fast as it approached the runway.

"The plane landed at a crazy speed. It was going into a dive and I was certain we would crash on the ground," Alessandro Bertellotti, a journalist with Italian broadcaster Rai, told the ANSA news agency. "I was sitting behind the wing. ... I saw that the pilot was trying to stop it, but it was too fast. It literarily bounced on the strip."

The government ordered an investigation into the crash, the third involving a commercial jetliner in the country in as many months. On New Year's Day, a jet plummeted into the sea, killing all 102 people on board. Weeks later, a plane broke apart on landing, though there were no casualties.

About 19 foreigners were on board Wednesday's flight from Jakarta, nine of them Australians. Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said five of the nine survived the fire with injuries, and information was urgently being sought on the others.

"The plane came hurtling in to the runway at a much greater speed than an aeroplane would normally land at," Downer was quoted as saying by Australia's The Age newspaper.

"It is a terrible tragedy," Australian Prime Minister John Howard told a nationally televised news conference. "Many lives have been lost, and our love and sympathy and condolences go to those who are suffering distress and grief."

Transport Minister Hatta Radjasa told reporters in Yogyakarta that 21 of the 140 passengers and crew on board died, while two others remained unaccounted for.

Television video shot by a cameraman for Australia's Seven Network who survived showed passengers fleeing the plane as black smoke, then orange flames, poured from the fuselage.

An explosion and fireball ripped through the air, apparently as the fire reached a fuel tank, according to the video. It showed dazed and burned victims, including Indonesians and Westerners, sitting on the floor or lying on gurneys in the airport terminal.

Bertellotti, the Italian survivor, told the British Broadcasting Corp. that the jet "kept rolling even after we reached the end of the runway."

"It got dark, objects started flying around, people started screaming. I remember that I kept cool, thinking only about escaping, nothing else," he said.

"A fire started three or four seats in front of me, on the right hand side of the plane. Everyone started screaming. A woman behind me kept pushing me and saying, 'Go, go, go,'" he said. "Luckily, I was close to the emergency exit and I jumped out, together with many other people. We landed on mud and grass. Soon, another explosion followed.

"After the second explosion, I didn't see more people jumping out of the plane."

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono ordered an investigation, appointing the security minister to look into possible "nontechnical" causes, said spokesman Andi Mallarangeng, in an apparent reference to sabotage.

It took more than two hours to put out the fire.

The Australians on board were diplomatic staff and journalists who were traveling from the capital, Jakarta, ahead of Australia's Foreign Affairs minister and Attorney-General Philip Ruddock, who had been due to attend a function later Wednesday. Neither official was aboard the stricken plane.

Howard said he had no information foul play was suspected.

"I have not received any advice suggesting it was anything other than a tragic accident," he told reporters in Melbourne. "I've not received any advice suggesting that there was sabotage or a terrorist attack."

Another survivor told local TV station RCTI TV that "before landing I felt the plane shake strongly."

"We overshot the runway, then I heard the sound of an explosion and ran through an emergency exit," said passenger Muhammad Dimyati.

Some survivors grabbed their hand luggage before escaping.

Indonesia has been hit by a string of transportation disasters in recent months. In late December, a passenger ferry sank in a storm in the Java Sea, killing more than 400 people.

Days later, a passenger plane operated by the budget airline Adam Air crashed into the ocean, killing all 102 people on board. A ship that sank near the capital's port left at least 50 dead.

The government responded by saying it would ban local commercial airlines from operating planes more than 10 years old, although most experts say maintenance and the number of takeoffs and landings are the most important factors in preventing accidents.

Radjasa, the transportation minister, faced new calls for his resignation.

"He should not be allowed to wash his hands of this," Burhanudddin Napitulu, senior lawmaker from the country's ruling party. "The public has lost all trust. They are too scared to take planes, trains or ferries any more because the disasters are never-ending."


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