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Boeing jet took off from Havana, caught fire soon after crashing south of the city; 3 passengers have reportedly been rescued
An old passenger jet with more than 100 people on board crashed shortly after taking off from Havana’s José Martí international airport Friday, leaving only three survivors.
The Boeing 737-200 en route to the city of Holguín in eastern Cuba crashed around noon local time near Santiago de las Vegas, a rural village some 12 miles south of Havana’s city center, according to state media. The aircraft, built in 1979, was leased to flagship carrier Cubana de Aviación, which has an aging fleet and has recently taken many of its planes out of service.
Authorities said 104 passengers were aboard.
State-owned news agency Prensa Latina reported that three passengers were rescued. The three survivors were women who were reported in critical condition at a hospital in Havana.
Footage from the crash showed the charred fuselage of the heavily damaged aircraft lying on a farm field as rescue workers looked for survivors and firefighters sprayed the burned airplane with hoses.
The crash comes after a period of record commercial aviation safety world-wide, with 2017 the first year in the age of modern aviation in which there wasn’t a single fatal accident involving a regularly scheduled passenger jetliner.
Photos from Havana’s airport showed a rising column of black smoke, while local media reported that ambulances, fire department and police units were rushing from all across Havana to Santiago de las Vegas.
Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel and local authorities supervised rescue efforts at the scene of the accident. Photos posted on state news media showed Mr. Díaz-Canel walking with security agents near the smoky fuselage as firefighters and rescue workers looked for survivors. “The news is not very promising, it seems that there is a high number of victims,” Mr. Díaz Canel told state television.
It is the first disaster that the 57-year-old Cuban leader has to deal with. He took over as president of the Communist island last month. Mr. Díaz-Canel said his administration has created a commission to investigate the cause of the crash.
Cuban authorities said they were arranging to transport relatives from Holguín to Havana to help identify victims.
State media said that most of the passengers were Cubans, except for about five and the Mexican crew. The Mexican embassy in Havana opened a hotline to attend to Mexicans.
Mexican investigators are traveling to Cuba to participate in the probe.
Carlos Alberto Martínez, head of the Calixto García hospital in Havana that is treating the three survivors, told local news website 14ymedio that the first victim who arrived at the hospital´s intensive care unit was in state of shock.
She had “a head injury, pelvic fracture, and an exposed fracture of the tibia and fibula,” Dr. Martínez was quoted as saying.
The plane was operated by Aerolíneas Damojh, a Mexican charter airline, which said the plane was carrying 104 passengers and six Mexican crew members, the pilot and co-pilot, three flight attendants and a maintenance technician.
The airline said it was still seeking information from Cuban authorities. Boeing Co. said it was closely monitoring the situation.
“A Boeing technical team stands ready to assist as permitted under U.S. law and at the direction of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board and Cuban authorities,” the company said in a statement.
Mexico’s Communications and Transport Ministry said the Mexican airline, set up in 1990, has a fleet of three planes, two Boeing 737-300s and the 737-200.
Among the first items investigators are likely to look at are whether both engines were operating as expected, and movable panels on the wings were deployed to help the plane climb during and immediately after takeoff.
A scheduled November inspection showed the airline carried out maintenance in accordance with the manufacturer’s program and the program approved by Mexican aeronautical authorities, the ministry said, adding that it had valid permits to lease the plane and crew to Cubana de Aviación.
In late 2010, a flight operated by the Mexican charter airline with 99 people on board made an emergency landing in the Mexican beach resort of Puerto Vallarta because the aircraft, another Boeing 737, had landing gear problems. Rescue workers sprayed the aircraft with fire foam and helped passengers exit the plane, according to Mexican media reports from that time. Company officials declined to comment.
In recent years, U.S . aviation regulators have set up various efforts intended to improve safety of Caribbean and Latin American Airlines. But Cuba has been a standout in not taking part in those programs.
Friday’s was the country’s first commercial airline accident since November 2010, when an Aero Caribbean flight from Santiago to Havana crashed in central Cuba, killing all 68 people aboard. In April 2017, a military plane crashed into a mountain southwest of Havana, killing all eight crew members aboard, according to state media.
The accident comes a day after Cuban Vice President Salvador Valdés met with the management of Cubana de Aviación to discuss improvements to the dismal service provided by the state-owned carrier. The cash-strapped economy of the communist island relies heavily on tourism and remittances from Cubans living in the U.S.
Many Cuban entrepreneurs have invested in restaurants, car services and boardinghouses for foreign visitors. But most services provided by state-owned entities, such as domestic air travel, tend to be of poor quality, including long flight delays and frequent cancellations.
“It is too early to tell the reasons for the crash, but the regime’s track record dealing with disasters is not reassuring, as hundreds of thousands of Cubans impacted by hurricanes throughout the years—and still waiting for government assistance to help rebuild their homes, attest,” said James Cason, former U.S. Chief of Mission in Cuba.
—Anthony Harrup and Andy Pasztor contributed to this article.
Write to Santiago Pérez at email@example.com
Appeared in the May 19, 2018, print edition as ‘More Than 100 Are Killed As Airliner Crashes in Cuba.’