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Passenger Jet Crashes in Fog, Killing 75 in Southeast Turkey

Five on board survive, including a toddler. The military rejects sabotage as the cause, but an investigation is ongoing in the strategic region.

January 09, 2003|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

ANKARA, Turkey — A Turkish Airlines jet trying to land at a fog-shrouded airport in southeastern Turkey crashed just short of the runway and burst into flames Wednesday night, killing 75 people.

The four-engine British Aerospace RJ 100 aircraft hit the ground and broke apart in a field about 40 yards from the edge of the airport in Diyarbakir, its destination, after a flight from Istanbul. Government officials said there had been no distress signal from the pilot, who died along with the four other crew members.

Prime Minister Abdullah Gul said the Turkish military had dismissed sabotage as a cause. "The reason for the crash is being investigated," he said. "Most probably it was bad weather conditions."

Turkish Airlines general manager Yusuf Bolayirli said 75 passengers were on the flight and five survived, including an 18-month-old girl in intensive care.

Two survivors reported hearing one or more explosions. The airport is part of a sensitive Turkish military base, which is being sought by the U.S. for a possible invasion of Iraq.

"I heard a loud explosion right before we were to land. I felt like my ear exploded," injured survivor Celal Tokmak told Turkish state television. Then, he added, "I heard a loud explosion after the crash.

"At first I thought there was a war. Is this an attack?"

Another survivor, Aliye Il, told Turkey's Anatolia news agency she was thrown from the plane and landed safely in a pile of hay, only to face death again when flames from the burning wreckage ignited the hay.

"The plane split in two and was burning," she was quoted as saying. "Then there was an explosion.... The whole plane was burning."

Turkey's transport minister, Binali Yildirim, said some passengers survived the crash but died of burns.

Eight foreign passengers, none identified by name or nationality, were among the dead, the airline said.

The State Department said at least one American passenger was believed to have been aboard the flight.

Diyarbakir, the largest city in Turkey's impoverished and predominantly Kurdish southeastern provinces, lies 2,160 feet above sea level and is often blanketed by fog in winter. Several flights to and from Diyarbakir were canceled last week because of poor visibility.

Civilian airlines and the Turkish air force share use of the sprawling airport. Because it is just 130 miles northwest of the border with Iraq, the United States has asked Turkish authorities for use of the airport in the event of a war to disarm Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Air defense missiles were deployed at the airport during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Turkish authorities have indicated that they would allow the United States to use some air bases against Iraq but have not given final authorization.

Wednesday's crash left luggage and twisted metal scattered over a half-mile radius. It occurred on the military side of the airport, and 400 soldiers were mobilized to fight the fire and search for survivors. Military helicopters hovered overhead, illuminating the wreckage with spotlights through the fog.

Turkish television showed the plane's wreckage still smoking several hours after the crash. It also showed relatives of passengers weeping and hugging each other at the airport terminal, then being forced by police from the building and into the freezing night.

Hospital morgues in Diyarbakir, a city of 2 million people, ran out of space for the remains of crash victims, and some were brought to a sports center.

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