Indonesia Probes Air Crash As City Mourns

September 6, 2005

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Weeping residents of Indonesia's third-biggest city picked through the charred rubble of their homes on Tuesday, a day after a domestic airliner crashed into a crowded area, killing 149 people.

There was still no word on the cause of the crash in Sumatra island's city of Medan, where the morgue at Adam Malik hospital was filled to overflowing, forcing authorities to set up a tent outside to keep a steady rain off rows of corpses.

Police watching over the wreckage of Mandala Airlines flight RI 091 said its voice and data recorder were found late on Monday night and sent for analysis.

"We will send it overseas for further investigation. At this stage it is too early to conclude the cause," Setyo Rahardjo, head of the national transport safety committee said.

The crash, just seconds after the plane took off from Polonia Airport, killed 102 people on board and 47 others on the ground.

Dozens of soldiers were still combing the crash site on Tuesday for human remains.

At the morgue, relatives wept as they sought to locate loved ones for swift burial to comply with Muslim tradition.

Many bodies were burned beyond recognition, making progress slow. An official said 69 bodies had so far been identified.

TV footage showed uniformed airline staff hugging one another and weeping as the bodies of the two pilots and some crew arrived in Jakarta in flag-draped coffins.

Fifteen passengers in the tail section of the Boeing 737-200, including a toddler under the age of two, survived the crash and were being treated in hospital.

Mandala director Asril Tanjung has said the cause of the crash was being investigated, but foul play was highly unlikely.

Officials have said technical problems and pilot error were among possible causes. The aircraft was built in 1981 and fit for eight more years of flying, according to the airline.

Mandala Airlines is one of Indonesia's oldest private carriers, operating a number of Boeing 737s. It competes in a crowded market since the establishment of numerous budget airlines in the past five years.

Soaring fuel prices have hit the country's airlines hard, putting some smaller carriers out of business and forcing others to cut services.

Survivors said the plane started to shake after take off, and failed to clear landing systems at the end of the runway. The aircraft clipped a river bank, swerved right and ploughed into homes on one of the city's busiest roads, bursting into flames.

"At first I heard a bang. Then I looked up (to the ceiling) and there were balls of fire and then my son and daughter-in-law came to get me," said Mariam, a 73 year old grandmother, sitting in the blackened wreckage of what was her home.

"We all ran from the back of the house," she said weeping.

Around her, at least a dozen destroyed homes could be seen.

Priyono, 45, whose house was wrecked, said he fled taking only his family. "Praise Allah my whole family is saved. That is the most important thing."

The plane was carrying 112 passengers and five crew on a flight to the Indonesian capital, Jakarta.

Following the crash, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono ordered an investigation into aviation safety standards, the Jakarta Post newspaper said.

A sombre Yudhoyono flew to Medan on Tuesday where he attended the funeral of the North Sumatra provincial governor killed in the crash and visited the wreckage-strewn site.

The crash is the second in Indonesia by a domestic carrier in less than a year. In November 2004, a Lion Air flight with 146 passengers and seven crew skidded off a rain-slicked runway in central Java, killing 31 people and injuring dozens more.

In an incident on Tuesday, a Garuda flight from Medan to Jakarta was diverted to Pekanbaru on Sumatra with indicator trouble, an airline official said. Nobody was hurt, but a passenger told local radio the landing was unusually shaky.

Medan, 1,425 km (885 miles) northwest of Jakarta, is a major gateway for aid into tsunami-hit Aceh province, and its airport is one of Indonesia's busiest.

Indonesia's worst air crash occurred in September 1997, when a Garuda Airbus A300 crashed in a mountainous area near Medan, killing all 222 passengers and 12 crew.

(Reuters)