MEDAN, Indonesia (AP) – A 32-year-old woman clutched her baby as she stumbled from the flaming plane wreck, only to watch in horror as her eldest son burned to death.

Another passenger fled through a hole in the shattered aircraft, leaping over charred bodies.

Some 16 people managed to survive Indonesia’s deadliest airline disaster. At least 147, many of them on the ground, were killed in Monday’s crash.

Bound for Jakarta, the Mandala Airlines plane shook violently just seconds after takeoff, veered to the left and slammed into a busy residential neighborhood in overcast weather 500 yards from the Medan airport.

The Boeing 737-200 shoved aside cars and motorcycles before plowing into a row of houses.

Witnesses said some people were on fire as they fled the scene.

Dozens of relatives and friends of victims wept at the Jakarta airport upon hearing the news. “I am waiting for my mother, but Mandala just said that the plane crashed and she was on board,” said Aryati, who like many Indonesians uses only one name. “Her name has appeared on a list of victims on TV.”

At a local hospital, Haji Muhammad Ersani visited his 32-year-old daughter, Fritina, who survived with her 18-month-old boy.

“She’s in shock,” he said. “She only remembers that when the plane went down and split apart, she immediately got out and watched as her eldest son was on fire.” “I have to accept all these happenings as destiny,” Ersani, 62, said quietly. “The destiny of my daughter and her children.”

Investigators were trying to determine what caused the crash, Indonesia’s second air disaster in nine months and the sixth worldwide since Aug. 1. Authorities considered foul play unlikely but were examining the possibility of human error or technical failure, said airline managing director Asril Tanjung.

Thousands of people, some standing on rooftops and buses, watched as firefighters struggled in a light drizzle to put out a fire that sent up thick clouds of black smoke.

Several houses and dozens of cars and motorcycles were engulfed in flames.

Survivors said the started shaking when it reached an altitude of about 100 yards before tilting sharply and smashing to the ground at 9:40 a.m. Some described a loud bang while the plane was still in flight, followed by a ball of fire.

“It happened very fast, no one even had time to panic,” Rohadi Kamsah Sitepu, 35, told The Associated Press from his hospital bed. “There was an explosion outside the plane followed by huge flames inside the cabin. Then we crashed.

“I struggled to take off my seat belt and then ran through a hole in the fuselage, jumping over charred bodies scattered all over the road,” said Sitepu, who had minor bruises to his legs. “It’s a miracle I survived. I can’t believe it.”

The plane was carrying 116 passengers and crew, airline officials said. Sixteen survived, said Nining, a Mandala spokeswoman. Medan police chief Col. Irawan Dahlan said there were 15 survivors from aboard the plane, but Transportation Minister Hatta Rajasa said there were 10.

Rajasa was quoted by the private Detik.com news Web site as saying 47 people on the ground were among the dead. City hospitals were treating at least a dozen residents.

One passenger, Rohadi Sitepu, said all the survivors were seated at the back of the plane.

“It was very, very scary. Unimaginable,” he told Metro TV station from his hospital bed. “The plane was taking off, but suddenly there was a strong tremor and it jerked to the left and crashed. There was fire everywhere, from the front of the plane to the back.”

Hundreds of policemen, paramedics and residents evacuated victims, but Syahrial Anas, a doctor overseeing the removal of charred bodies, said flames and the thousands of onlookers at the crash site hampered their efforts.

“I saw at least 20 people running around with their clothes on fire,” said Awi, a shop owner. “They were shrieking in agony and shouting ‘Help! Help!”‘

Monday’s crash follows five major airline accidents in August, the deadliest month for plane disasters since May 2002. Some 334 people died in accidents in Peru, Venezuela, Greece and Tunisia last month. A plane overshot a runway in Toronto and caught fire; no one died.

Medan, the country’s third-largest city, has been a major staging point for tsunami relief operations in Aceh province, on the northern tip of Sumatra island.

The international airport is near the center of town and surrounded by densely populated areas. Residents have for years argued that it should be moved, and Transportation Minister Rajasa told reporters at the crash site he hoped that would happen soon. Contract bidding for construction of a new airport will open this year, he said.

Mandala Airlines is a Jakarta-based domestic carrier founded in 1969 by a military-run foundation. Its 15-plane fleet consists mainly of 1970s-vintage Boeing 737-200 jets. In recent years, the financially troubled airline has been forced to cut services and fares to remain competitive.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono ordered an investigation into the crash, his spokesman said. Among those killed was the governor of North Sumatra province, en route to the capital for a meeting with the president.

The plane was nearly 25 years old and received its last comprehensive service in June, the airline said. It had flown more than 50,000 hours and was slated for retirement in 2016.

Indonesia’s last jetliner crash was in February 2005. Twenty-six people were killed when a plane operated by low-cost Lion Air skidded off the runway on Java Island. The country’s worst crash was in September 1997; a Garuda Airbus smashed into mountains near Medan, killing all 232 people on board.

AP-ES-09-05-05 1635EDT


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