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Brazil crash fuels anger over aviation

Safety issues are cited as bodies are recovered at Sao Paulo's airport.

July 19, 2007|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL — Rescue workers pulled bodies from mounds of blackened rubble Wednesday while this metropolis poured out its grief and anger over a plane crash Tuesday night that many Brazilians saw as both predictable and avoidable.

Caustic smoke billowed all day from the site of the nation's worst airline disaster, which occurred when a TAM airlines Airbus 320 carrying 186 passengers and crew members slid off a rain-slicked runway at Congonhas International Airport, went over a major thoroughfare, crashed into a gas station and a cargo terminal and exploded in a fireball.

Officials said about 170 bodies had been found by Wednesday afternoon. The toll could climb as high as 200, including people killed on the ground.

There has been some confusion about the casualties. Officials said Tuesday that 176 people had been aboard the aircraft and at least 15 had been killed on the ground.

The catastrophe in Sao Paulo, South America's largest city, occurred at a time when Brazil's aviation industry has been relentlessly criticized over erratic service and a slew of crashes and near accidents. Just 10 months ago, a private jet collided with a Brazilian Boeing 737, which crashed in the Amazon jungle, killing all 154 people aboard. The private jet landed safely.

Several people passing through Congonhas or gathered outside Wednesday expressed frustration with the industry's seemingly endless problems and the government's inability to resolve them. They also expressed dismay that another crash had occurred despite the repeated raising of safety concerns.

"Everything is about greed, and our rulers are very irresponsible," said Manthos Evangelos Manthou, 66, who lives in the densely populated neighborhood that surrounds the airport. He was part of a large crowd gathered outside to talk, commiserate and watch the recovery efforts.

Some mentioned the apparent failure of the agency that manages Brazil's airports to complete a long-delayed project to repave a worn runway, which has turned into an early focus of speculation about what might have caused the crash.

The runway was reopened just 18 days ago after being closed for two months for re-grooving, which is intended to channel away water and give planes more traction when landing. On Monday, a small turboprop plane briefly spun out of control while attempting to land.

The runway also has been repeatedly criticized by aviation experts as too short to accommodate large jets, particularly in bad weather.

"We've been feeling something was going to happen," said Rosivaldo Oliveira, 35, who was traveling with his daughter on a TAM flight from Sao Paulo to the northeast city of Salvador. Tuesday's crash, he said, "was very predictable."

Others said that when Congonhas was built in the early part of the 20th century, the surrounding area was mainly open land. Today, the airport is surrounded by high rises, adding another challenge for pilots.

"When they created the airport, there weren't all the residential structures around," said Father Jose Augusto Souza, 47, a local priest, who said he had come to the airport to offer comfort and condolences.

Today, he said, the same overdevelopment is taking place around the Sao Paulo area's other major airport in the nearby town of Guarulhos, which handles much of the country's international air traffic.

By evening, only nine bodies had been identified. Efforts to search the buildings were hampered by fear that the structures could collapse.

Within hours of the crash, a political and economic backlash was building across Brazil. Congressional opposition leaders demanded the resignation of Defense Minister Waldir Pires. Brazil's air force oversees the country's air traffic controllers, who have grown increasingly disenchanted with their working conditions but are prohibited from going on strike.

Brazilian and other Latin American newspapers also are speculating about the political damage that the crash could cause to President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Stock prices for TAM airlines fell 9% on Wednesday.

At the XV Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro, several Brazilian athletes wore black armbands to commemorate the victims of the crash, and one volleyball player cried openly during a minute of silence before the opening of Wednesday's games.

Numerous flights were canceled or diverted to other airports. Some passengers reported delayed landings, miscommunication by airline officials and other problems.

"I think Brazilians have been feeling insecure for a long time," said Lene Maldonado, a 32-year-old actress. She had come to Congonhas to meet her mother, only to be told that the flight had been diverted to another airport an hour away. "I travel a lot, but I don't have total confidence."

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reed.johnson@latimes.com

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