LIMA, Peru (AP) – Trudging through knee-deep mud in a hail storm, at least 57 people escaped a flaming Peruvian airliner that splintered as it crash-landed in the Amazon jungle, killing 31. An aviation expert Wednesday called it a “miracle” that so many walked away.

Wind shear may have forced the pilot’s emergency landing attempt Tuesday afternoon, making TANS Peru Flight 204 the world’s fifth major airline accident this month and August the deadliest month for airline disasters in three years.

The Boeing 737-200 was carrying 98 people, including six crew members, on a flight from the Peruvian capital of Lima to the Amazon city of Pucallpa, company spokesman Jorge Belevan said Wednesday. The company previously said some 100 people were aboard.

Belevan said 10 missing people might include survivors from Pucallpa who went home without receiving medical assistance.

Television images of the crash site showed mutilated bodies being retrieved from a marsh near the Pucallpa airport where the pilot had attempted a soft emergency landing. The fuselage was shattered and pieces strewn along a 500-yard path made by the plane as it crash-landed on the boggy ground.

“A plane is totally destroyed and more than 50 percent of the passengers have survived,” John Elliot, an experienced Peruvian pilot and aviation expert, said in an Associated Press interview. He called it “a miracle.”

Gaps in the wreckage apparently allowed people to crawl out. Two Italian survivors said they escaped through the emergency exit, which had opened, then walked a couple of miles to a town where people took them to a hospital.

“I felt the crash and I fainted, and my boyfriend, Simone, dragged me outside and we walked in the forest,” Letizia Onorati told Italian state TV by cell phone from the Peruvian hospital.

Simone Simonini described how he found Onorati in the plane, “grabbed her by her pants and pulled her out.” Simoni said no flight attendants were there to help, leading him to believe they had perished in the crash.

The extreme weather and the number of people who escaped bore some similiarity to an accident Aug. 2 in Toronto: All 309 people aboard survived when an Air France plane overshot the runway. In that incident, emergency evacuation measures and equipment helped people get out.

Peruvian Yuri Salas was another who crawled from the wreckage and walked to safety.

“The turbulence was strong and the plane began to fly very low,” he said. “I felt a strong impact and a light and fire. (I) felt I was in the middle of flames around the cabin, until I saw to my left a hole to escape through. Two other people were struggling to get out and I also was able to.”

He said he heard another person shouting to him to keep advancing because the plane was going to explode. “The fire was fierce despite the storm,” he said. “Hail was falling and the mud came up to my knees.”

The pilot began his approach to the airport in torrential rains and strong winds, which passengers said began rocking the plane 10 minutes before the scheduled landing. Four miles from the airstrip he attempted to make an emergency landing, after wind shear apparently pushed his plane near the ground, TANS said.

“It was the expertise of the pilots that permitted the plane to land because the plane has not crashed. It has not fallen. The plane made an emergency landing and the accident occurred during the emergency landing,” Belevan said.

But Elliot and Victor Girao, another civil aviation expert, said pilot error might have caused the crash. Elliot said the pilot should have opted to avoid the storm and land at another airport.

Both said the pilot was flying too close to the ground at four miles from the airport, making it difficult to control the aircraft against wind shear – a potentially dangerous sudden change in wind speed or direction, often during a thunderstorm.

“They were coming in very low, looking for the airstrip. A big beginners’ error,” Girao said.

Search teams have recovered the plane’s cockpit flight data recorder, said Pablo Arevalo, a prosecutor in the jungle city of Pucallpa.

Belevan, the airline spokesman, said there were 18 foreigners aboard the aircraft – 11 Americans, four Italians, one Colombian, one Australian and one from Spain.

Among the dead were at least three foreigners – an American woman, an Italian man and a Colombian woman, Police Lt. David Mori told AP. Many bodies could not immediately be identified.

Among the survivors was the six-member Vias family. Peruvian media reports said the family was from New Jersey, but officials could not immediately confirm that.

Pope Benedict XVI said he was praying for the victims of the crash as well as those grieving, according to a telegram of condolence sent by the Vatican.

Airline disasters this month have killed at least 328 people. The previous deadliest month was May 2002, with three major crashes that killed at least 485.

One common factor in several of the crashes is the weather, said Bill Waldock, an aviation safety professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona Waldock said.

More plane crashes tend to happen in August, because thunderstorms – especially dangerous to planes – are more frequent.

“It’s one of those odd little blips. Quite a few accidents have happened in August,” he said, citing U.S. airline crashes in 1985, 1987 and 1988.

Last week, 160 people died when a Colombian-registered West Caribbean charter went down in Venezuela. Two days earlier, 121 people died when a Cyprus-registered Helios Airways Boeing plunged into mountains north of Athens, Greece.

Thirteen people died Aug. 6 when a plane operated by Tunisia’s Tuninter crashed off Sicily.

In January 2003, a TANS twin-engine Fokker 28 turbojet plowed into a 11,550-foot-high mountain in Peru’s northern jungle, killing all 48 aboard.

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