GUATEMALA CITY — A jetliner carrying passengers to Mayan ruins in northern Guatemala crashed into a remote jungle area and exploded Saturday, killing at least 90 people, including six Americans, the Guatemalan airline Aerovias said.
There was confusion over the exact number of persons on board the plane when a presidential spokesman reported that 96 badly burned bodies had been pulled from the wreckage.
It was the worst crash was in Guatemala's aviation history.
The twin-engine Caravelle operated by the private company Aerovias left Guatemala City at 7:25 a.m. for the 40-minute flight to Santa Elena, located in the province of Peten, 160 miles northeast of the capital. The airport is used by tourists traveling to see the Mayan ruins at Tikal, 37 miles to the north of Santa Elena.
Airline officials said the jetliner crashed on its second pass over Santa Elena after passing too high the first time.
Last Tower Contact
Gerry Waters, a spokesman at the U.S. Embassy here, said airline officials reported the control tower's last contact with the plane was at 7:58 a.m. and that the pilot had not indicated that there were any problems.
He said an embassy official was sent to the crash site to confirm the number of U.S. victims.
"Right now, we are just saying there were a number of Americans on the flight," Waters said. "We don't want to say specifically until we can get it nailed down."
The airline identified the six Americans aboard the jetliner as Ruth Gonzalez, Teresa Rodriguez, John Buffett, Walter Peter Chize and a Mr. and Mrs. Sweeney or Sweney. The airline's passenger list did not include the first names, ages or hometowns of the Americans.
58 from Guatemala
It said that in addition to the six Americans, 53 passengers and five crew members were Guatemalans; six were from Colombia, including the flight engineer; four from Venezuela; two from Mexico; two from Costa Rica; two from the Netherlands; two from Britain; two from Canada; two from the Netherland Antilles; and one each from West Germany, Greece, France and Italy.
However, the airline's figures were disputed by presidential spokesman Jorge Cansino, who said that six additional bodies were pulled from the wreckage. Cansino said his office is checking the airline's flight manifest.
Guatemalan troops stationed at the Santa Elena airport and local paramedic teams and volunteers were taking bodies to a soccer field in Flores, a tourist resort near Santa Elena, authorities said.
Officials said the jungle where the plane crashed is so dense that a landing area had to be cleared for a Guatemalan air force helicopter.
Aerovias President Eduardo Gonzales said members of the Guatemalan air force and the civil aeronautics board were at the scene trying to determine the cause of the crash.
The airline spokesman said that the four Venezuelan victims were former Foreign Minister Aristides Calvani, his wife, Adelita, and their two daughters, Graciela, 23, and Maria Elena, 25. The Calvanis had been on their way to visit the Tikal ruins.
The Frenchman aboard the plane was identified as Alexander Skacovich, 64, a resident of Caracas, Venezuela, who was a senior official of the European Communities.
Calvani and Skacovich were in Guatemala to attend last Tuesday's inauguration of President Vinicio Cerezo. Calvani, like his close friend Cerezo, was a Christian Democrat and a leader of that party in his country. Calvani, who served as foreign minister from 1969 to 1974, would have celebrated his 68th birthday today.
In Venezuela, a three-day mourning period was declared and the government sent Foreign Minister Simon Consalvi to recover the bodies of Calvani and his family.
President Cerezo said he was "profoundly dismayed" by the crash. The National Congress declared a three-day period of mourning for those killed in the accident.
Aerovias is a private company that has regularly scheduled flights and charter flights in Guatemala. It leased the French-built jetliner from the Ecuadorean airline SAETA.
Tikal is one of the largest and possibly the oldest of the Mayan cities. It consists of nine groups of courts and plazas built on hilly land above surrounding swamps. The ruins are interconnected by bridges and causeways.
It was the first major airline disaster of 1986, following the deadliest year in aviation history. About 2,000 people were killed in crashes of regularly scheduled and chartered airliners worldwide in 1985.