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Dominican Jet Crashes in Sea; 189 Feared Dead

February 08, 1996|MIKE CLARY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MIAMI — A charter airliner loaded with German tourists bound for home plunged into the Atlantic Ocean minutes after takeoff from a resort city in the Dominican Republic late Tuesday, apparently killing all 189 people aboard the Boeing 757.

It was the second crash of a 757 in a little over a month.

Throughout the day Wednesday, rescuers aboard U.S. Coast Guard and Navy ships pulled bodies from the shark-infested water and ferried them to a makeshift morgue on a wharf in Puerto Plata, the hub of a booming resort area on what is called the Amber Coast.

By dusk, 79 bodies had been recovered, and Coast Guard officials said the search would continue through the night. But what little hope existed of finding survivors was quickly fading.

"Unfortunately, it doesn't look good," said Coast Guard Petty Officer Mark Mackowiac.

The aircraft, operated by the Dominican airline Alas de Transporte Internacional, went down in light rain Tuesday just before midnight 13 miles from the end of the Puerto Plata runway, shattering into pieces on impact. The plane had just climbed to about 5,000 feet.

"The impact was hard and fast," said Coast Guard Lt. Marc Gray.

Debris, including empty life rafts, seat cushions and oil, was scattered over an area 100 yards wide by two miles long. Three Coast Guard cutters, a Navy ship, several helicopters and a flotilla of small Dominican fishing boats searched for victims Wednesday as the sea calmed and the sky grew sunny.

The aircraft had been in the air for only about five minutes Tuesday when a radar operator at Puerto Plata International Airport noted that the jet had turned back toward land, according to Luis Flores Mota, a spokesman with the Dominican Republic's civil air agency. No distress call or report of trouble was received before the plane disappeared from the radar screen, Flores said.

A total of 176 passengers and 13 crew members were on board the flight when it went down just off Cabarate Beach, a popular windsurfing spot.

Eleven of the crew members, including the pilot, reportedly were Turkish, and two were Dominican.

Most of the passengers were believed to be Germans on vacation. Polish radio reported that two members of the Polish parliament, identified as Marek Wielgus and Zbigniew Gorzelanczyk, were also on the passenger list.

A spokesman at the German Embassy in Santo Domingo, capital of the Dominican Republic, said at least one Austrian and one Hungarian were also aboard.

The crash is believed to be the worst in Dominican history and has claimed more German lives than any single airplane disaster.

The plane was owned by a Turkish company, Birgen Air, and leased to Alas. The Dominican airline was shut down temporarily in 1993 after failing to meet international safety standards. Questions were raised Wednesday in Germany about whether this plane--a last-minute substitution for another aircraft--was insured or permitted to land in Germany.

According to one report, the aircraft that went down was substituted at the last minute for a Boeing 767 with a faulty hydraulic pump. But a conflicting report in Germany said the smaller 757 was used because the larger, 300-passenger plane was underbooked.

Boeing spokesman Dick Kenny said the 757 leased by Alas was built in 1985. "Our aim now is to help find out what happened, why it happened and what can be done to prevent something like that from happening again," he said.

Determining the cause of the crash is expected to be difficult, however. Waters at the crash site are as deep as 3,600 feet, according to the Coast Guard, and the flight data recorder could be hard to find. A Navy submarine reportedly has been called in to aid the search.

Flight 301 was bound for Berlin and Frankfurt, where scores of relatives and friends of those aboard gathered at the airports to await news of search efforts. Crisis teams that included counselors and clergy were summoned to aid those waiting.

In Washington, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board said a team of investigators, including representatives of the Federal Aviation Administration and Boeing, was en route to the Dominican Republic to aid in the investigation of the crash--the second involving a Boeing 757 since Dec. 20, when an American Airlines Boeing 757 slammed into a mountain near Cali, Colombia, killing 160.

Puerto Plata is an ancient port city, named by Christopher Columbus and used for centuries as a base by pirates. It was discovered by throngs of tourists from the U.S., Canada and Europe just 15 years ago after the international airport opened. Last year, Puerto Plata was visited by more than 150,000 Germans, more than from any other country, according to Dominican tourism spokesman Julio Fernandez in Miami.

Nestled at the foot of loaf-shaped Mt. Isabela, Puerto Plata is noted for windsurfing, white sand beaches, palm-lined coves and the gingerbread architecture of its 19th century wooden buildings.

Times researchers Anna M. Virtue in Miami and Christian Retzlaff in Berlin contributed to this report.

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