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Jetliner overshoots runway in Honduras, killing 2

The Los Angeles Times
From the Associated Press

1:57 PM PDT, May 30, 2008

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – A Miami-bound jetliner overshot a runway and slammed to a stop on a busy street today in the Honduran capital, leaving a pilot and a passenger dead and injuring at least 18 others.

The nose of the Grupo Taca plane smashed into a retaining wall and its fuselage buckled and broke in places, trapping the pilot and co-pilot inside. Rescuers had to pry open part of the wreckage to get them out, but the pilot didn’t survive, said Cesar Villalta, director of Honduras’ military hospital.

Also killed was a Nicaraguan who headed a regional development bank. Villalta said at least 18 people were hospitalized, two of them in critical condition.

Firefighters hosed down at least two cars trapped under the plane’s left engine. More than 2,000 gallons (7,500 liters) of fuel spilled out of the jet, and authorities tried to clear away hundreds of onlookers.

“The airplane’s fuel could cause an explosion, and that would be an even bigger tragedy,” Security Ministry spokesman Ivan Mejia said.

Many passengers walked away from the accident.

Roberto Sosa, 34, told The Associated Press: “We landed … and suddenly I heard a really strong, loud impact.”

Mirtila Lopez, 71, said she was talking to another passenger when the plane “left the runway, hit electric cables from a nearby street and then got stuck in the side of a small ravine.”

The Airbus 320 left San Salvador at 8:30 a.m. local time carrying 124 passengers, mostly from Honduras, El Salvador and Costa Rica. It was scheduled to stop briefly in Tegucigalpa and in San Pedro Sula before heading to Miami.

It was unclear what caused the crash, but weather may have been a factor. The runway was wet with rain from Tropical Storm Alma.

Passenger Harry Brautigam, president of the Tegucigalpa-based Central American Bank for Economic Integration since 2003, died of heart problems shortly after the crash, according to Tito Alvarado, the director of the hospital where he was treated.

Officials have been struggling for years to replace aging Toncontin International Airport, whose short runway, primitive navigation equipment and neighboring hills make it one of the world’s more dangerous international airports.

The airport was built on the southern edge of hilly Tegucigalpa in 1948 with a runway less than 5,300 feet (1,600 meters) long — shorter than that of a small field such as Municipal Airport in Goldsboro, N.C.

The altitude of some 3,300 feet (1,000 meters) forces pilots to use more runway on landings and takeoffs than they would at sea level. And because of the hills, pilots have to make an unusually steep approach.

President Manuel Zelaya said he was talking to his Cabinet about using the U.S. military’s Soto Cano air base about 40 miles (65 kilometers) north of the capital. It has the best runway in the country at 2,700 meters (8,850 feet) long and 50 meters (165 feet) wide and is used most for drug surveillance flights.

“I’ve flown a lot, and pilots have to work really hard to arrive successfully at Toncontin,” Zelaya said.

Toncontin was closed after the crash, but general manager Carlos Ramos said officials hoped to reopen it soon. Flights were temporarily rerouted to nearby airports.

“This could have been human or technical errors made worse by the weather,” Ramos said. “It is too soon to say.”

In 1997, a U.S. Air Force C-130 cargo plane overshot the runway at Toncontin and rolled 200 yards (180 meters) before bursting into flames on a major boulevard, killing three people aboard.

The worst crash associated with the airport came in 1989 when a Honduran airliner hit a nearby hill, killing 133 people.

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