WARSAW — A New York-bound Polish jetliner, with one of its four engines in flames, crashed in a huge ball of fire in a forest near Warsaw on Saturday as the pilot struggled to guide the stricken craft to a landing at the capital's airport. All 183 people aboard, including at least 17 U.S. citizens, were killed.
It was the worst air crash in Poland's history.
The plane was a Soviet-built Ilyushin-62M carrying a crew of 11 and 172 passengers that had been chartered as Flight No. 5055 from LOT, the state airline. It tore through a line of trees and exploded three miles southeast of Okecie International Airport near fields of red tulips.
Pilot's Final Words
"That's the end. . . . Goodby," the pilot, Capt. Zygmunt Pawlaczyk, radioed airport controllers just before the crash, state-run television reported.
Witnesses reported that smoke was pouring from an engine on the plane's right side just before the crash. The plane's four engines are located at the rear of the fuselage, two on each side.
Witnesses said the pilot was clearly struggling to avoid built-up areas, including a large housing project nearby, as the plane came down in Kabaty Forest. They said the plane crashed about 300 yards from the village of Dabrowka. Windows of houses in Dabrowka, which has a population of about 3,000, were smashed by the explosion, but no casualties were reported.
The Polish news agency PAP said that in addition to the 17 U.S. citizens, the other victims among the passengers were 134 Poles and 21 Polish citizens permanently residing abroad. It added that four victims were children ages 2 to 5 years.
Some With Dual Passports
The U.S. Embassy cautioned earlier that more than 17 Americans might be dead because some passengers were probably Polish-born naturalized citizens with dual passports.
The names of all 183 victims were read over state radio Saturday evening.
The Polish media and witnesses described the horror of the crash which occurred on a bright, clear day.
"I saw the plane diving, nose down," said Anna Zagorska, 26, who was picking flowers in her yard at the time. "There was an explosion that shattered the glass in our house. Bodies were lying all around. There is nothing, just bodies. Doctors came, had a look, and there was no one to save."
A professional pilot who saw the plane rapidly losing altitude said, "I watched it disappear, and then there was an enormous explosion and a mushroom of black smoke.
"I jumped into my car and rushed to the spot in case I could help, but there was nothing but ashes, bits of wreckage and small fires that neighbors and I extinguished with spades before the fire service got there."
Little Trace of Human Remains
A woman who also witnessed the crash said she saw a body hanging from a tree after the explosion but rescue workers found little trace of human remains, apparently because of the force of the blast.
"I saw a pair of baby shoes but no identifiable traces of things like seats," a man said. "The biggest piece of metal wreckage was no more than two meters square."
Polish television broadcast graphic pictures of the crash site, with burned bodies and body parts strewn in the woods amid clothing, luggage and fragments of the jetliner.
"There is no plane, just one big mess of pieces of metal," one young police officer at the scene said.
Most of a fleet of vans from the city morgue apparently left the crash site empty because so little trace remained of the victims.
Jania Szulc, 43, of Clifton, N.J., told reporters she had been due to take the flight but arrived late at the airport and was not allowed to board because a customs check could not be completed before takeoff.
'You Are Lucky'
She said officials told her later, "You are lucky you were not on the plane because it has crashed."
"When I heard the announcement that the plane had crashed, it was difficult to believe. My face was very white," she said.
"I told the customs officer, 'Thank you very much; you saved my life,' " she added. " 'If you had checked my bags faster, I'd be dead.' "
Several hours later, distraught family groups who had gone to the airport to bid farewell to the passengers returned there to seek information.
"I stayed at the airport to watch the takeoff, and the plane was smoking quite a bit as it moved in the direction of the runway," said Henryk Mackiewicz, whose wife, Zofia, was aboard, on her way to visit their son in Denver.
"As it turned onto the runway it looked as if it was in a cloud of smoke," he said.
In New York, family and friends of victims kept a tearful vigil at Kennedy International Airport, the plane's destination. One woman clutched a bouquet of flowers and wandered about in tears, asking about a sister who was aboard the flight.
Flight Recorder Recovered
The exact cause of the crash was still to be determined. Officials said the flight recorder has been recovered.