At Least 189 Dead In Brazilian Jet Crash

A firefighter walks away from the TAM airlines airliner that crashed in Sao Paulo, Wednesday, July 18, 2007.

Sao Paulo, Brazil (CBS/AP) - Rescue crews pulled dozens of bodies Wednesday from a Brazilian airliner that crashed and burst into flames at Brazil's busiest airport, as the number of people known dead rose to 189 and could go higher.

The TAM airlines Airbus-320 was en route to Sao Paulo from Porto Alegre in southern Brazil on Tuesday when it skidded on the rain-slicked runway in Sao Paulo, barreled across a busy road, hit a taxi, and slammed into a gas station and TAM building.

"What appears to have happened is that he (the pilot) didn't manage to land and he tried to take off again," said Capt. Marcos, a fire department spokesman who would only identify himself by rank and first name in accordance with department guidelines.

The jet hit a four-story cargo service building which operates 24 hours a day, so it was full of people, reports CBS News transportation correspondent Nancy Cordes.

The airline put the number of people aboard the plane at 186, and officials said three bodies of people killed on the ground had been recovered. There were fears of more dead on the ground, with 14 others taken to hospitals, where their conditions were not known.

A Sao Paulo public safety official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of department policy said 15 bodies had been recovered from the ground.

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva declared three days of national mourning.

Sao Paulo state Gov. Jose Serra said the hopes of finding any of the people aboard plane alive "are practically nil," since the temperature inside the plane reached 1,830 degrees Fahrenheit.

Eyewitness Elias Rodrigues Jesus, a TAM worker, told The Associated Press he was walking near the site when he saw the jet explode in between a gas station and a Tam building.

"All of a sudden I heard a loud explosion, and the ground beneath my feet shook," Jesus said. "I looked up and I saw a huge ball of fire, and then I smelled the stench of kerosene and sulfur."

The jet landed on a runway long considered too short for some planes and not equipped to operate properly in bad weather, reports Cordes — it lacks proper drainage.

The runway had recently been repaved, but the grooves to aid traction had not yet been installed, reporter Paula Gobbi in Sao Paolo tells CBS News. Pilots have told the local newspaper the runway was "slippery as soap."

Two planes slipped off it in rainy weather just a day earlier, though no one was injured in either incident.

Pilots sometimes refer to Congonhas as the "aircraft carrier." They say they are instructed to touch down in the first 1,000 feet of runway, or do a go-around if they overshoot the immediate landing zone.

The Congonhas runway is 6,365 feet, compared with a 7,003-foot runway at New York's LaGuardia Airport, which accommodates similar planes, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

The airline released a list of most of the people on the flight early Wednesday morning. "Tam expresses its most profound condolences to the relatives and friends of the passengers who were on Flight 3054," the company said.

Before the list was released, Lamir Buzzanelli said his 41-year-old son, Claudemir, an engineer, had called him from Porto Alegre to say he was in the plane and about to return from a business trip.

"My hopes are not too high because I've been calling him on his cell phone, and all I get is his voice mail," Buzzanelli said, his eyes tearing up.

Some relatives had to be medicated and receive medical attention when the list was released, reports Gobbi.

The crash highlights the country's increasing aviation woes. In September, a Gol Airlines Boeing 737 collided with an executive jet over the Amazon rainforest, causing the passenger jet to crash, killing 154 people.

Since then, there have been questions about the country's under-funded air traffic control systems, deficient radar system and the airlines' ability to cope with a surge in travelers. Controllers — concerned about being made scapegoats — have engaged in strikes and work slowdowns to raise safety concerns, causing lengthy delays and cancelations.

Presidential spokesman Marcelo Baumbach said no cause would be immediately released because it was premature to do so.

"His worries now are with the victims and the relatives of the victims. That is main concern," the spokesman said of Silva.

The accident happened during heavy rains, and critics have said for years that such an accident was possible at the airport because its runway is too short for large planes landing in rainy weather.

In 1996, a TAM airlines Fokker-100 skidded off the runway at Congonhas airport and down a street before erupting in a fireball. The crash killed all 96 people on board and three on the ground.

Earlier this year, after several other jets skidded, a Brazilian judge ordered that some large planes be banned from the airport, reports Cordes. But an appeals court overruled him, saying the financial implications would be too severe.

In France, Airbus said it was sending five specialists to Brazil to help investigate the crash. The company will provide "full technical assistance" to France's bureau for accident investigations and to Brazilian authorities.

The single-aisle, twin-engine plane, delivered in 1998, had logged about 20,000 flight hours in some 9,300 flights, the European plane maker said.

Copyright 2007, CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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