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234 Are Killed in Indonesian Airliner Crash

September 27, 1997| From Times Wire Services

JAKARTA, Indonesia — An Indonesian jetliner crashed Friday in an area of Sumatra that has been shrouded in smoke from hundreds of forest fires, killing all 234 people aboard. Investigators were checking to determine if the thick haze over Southeast Asia was a factor.

Rescue teams picked through the smoking wreckage, and by nightfall the bodies of 212 people had been found in the lush, rugged terrain, airline official John Pieter said.

"All passengers and crew on board the plane that crashed were killed," Communications Minister Haryanto Danutirto said today.

The bodies were to be removed today, when the search for other victims and the plane's flight recorders was to resume.

Two Americans were among the passengers on board the Garuda A-300B4 Airbus, the airline said. Six Japanese, three Germans, one Dutch and at least one Malaysian were also aboard, the airline said. The rest were Indonesians.

A state-owned television station played somber music as it broadcast a list of victims' names Friday night. The names and nationalities of the dead could not be confirmed, however.

According to the state-owned Antara news agency, the pilot reported low visibility because of the haze minutes before the aircraft went down. It said the pilot asked air traffic controllers in Medan for guidance in landing.

Authorities stressed that the cause of the crash had not been determined.

State Secretary Murdiono said President Suharto had ordered Haryanto Danutirto, the communications and transportation minister, to carry out a full investigation.

Garuda President Supandi said the airline will fly relatives of the victims to Medan today.

"Garuda is fully responsible. We are very sad about what has happened today," Supandi said.

The dense haze over Southeast Asia caused by the fires has disrupted air traffic and forced airports to close because of dangerously low visibility.

The smog, seen as one of the region's worst environmental disasters, has been wreaking havoc on the health of thousands of people and on regional economies already hurt by falling currencies and stock markets.

The fires--set by Indonesian companies to clear land for palm-oil and pulp plantations--have been burning out of control and have charred more than 750,000 acres of land on the islands of Sumatra, Borneo, Sulawesi and Java. A drought blamed on the El Nino weather system has delayed the monsoon rains and allowed the fires to burn fiercely for weeks.

On Friday, rescue teams complained that the smoke prevented them from flying helicopters to the crash site, 20 miles west of Medan's Polonia airport.

The 15-year-old twin-engine plane had been on a flight from Jakarta to Medan.

The Antara news agency said the plane descended into the haze as it prepared to land at Medan. An unconfirmed report indicated that the visibility was less than 1,600 feet at the time.

Antara reported that radar contact was lost eight minutes after the pilot had radioed for guidance for his final approach.

Officials quoted witnesses as saying the plane was flying low in the haze when it hit a tree and crashed. Some witnesses said they heard an explosion just before impact.

Airport officials declined to say whether the aircraft had been on a visual or instrument approach, or what the visibility was at the time of the crash.

Residents in Medan said the haze was the worst they had seen since the pollution crisis started. Many people remained indoors Friday because it was difficult to breathe, said Ching Ting Lien, a local newspaper editor.

Garuda, Indonesia's largest state-owned airline, canceled several flights to Medan after the crash, citing poor visibility.

Airbus Industrie, the manufacturer of the plane, said the aircraft involved in Friday's crash had been delivered to Garuda in November 1982.

Friday's accident was Indonesia's third major airline crash this year.

On July 17, a Dutch-built Sempati Air Fokker commuter plane crashed near a housing complex on the island of Java, killing 30 people.

Fifteen people were killed when a British-made ATP turboprop plane flown by the state-run Merpati Nusantara airline crashed off Sumatra on April 19.

On June 13, 1996, a Garuda DC-10 failed to take off properly in Fukuoka, Japan, skidded to a stop in a field and burst into flames, killing three people.

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