Probe into Spanair Crash Begins

The Spanish jet crash, which left 153 dead, was the country's worst since 1973. Investigators are probing the wreckage

As darkness fell on Madrid on Wednesday, the first bodies began to arrive in hearses at the entrance to convention hall No. 6. It's not the first time that a part of the Ifema, the Spanish capital city's trade fair center, has been transformed into a morgue. The dead were also brought here after the terrorist attacks on Madrid on March 11, 2004.

So far, 153 passengers flying on Spanair Flight JK 5022 have been confirmed dead, with many bodies charred to the point they are unrecognizable. The flight was cross-listed as Lufthansa LH 2554. Only 19 passengers survived, according to doctors. The plane carried 162 passengers, six working crew members and four nonworking staff.

The Spanish newspaper El Mundo described how family members arrived at the convention center on Wednesday. They were there to say goodbye and to help indentify deceased passengers. Families of survivors arrived in private cars and taxis and also in two chartered buses. In Hall Eight, close to 200 mothers, fathers, sons and daughters waited for news. Families were asked to name a representative who could be assigned as a point person for social workers and who could help identify the bodies. According to the report, 80 rescue workers, including 14 psychologists, were on hand to provide support to the families.

Ambulances arrived again and again throughout the evening to provide medical aid to the families of the deceased. Madrid Mayor Alberto Ruiz Gallardon also visited the site to express his condolences to the families.

Officials in Madrid said that 40 forensics experts are working to conduct autopsies on the bodies and identify the dead. German experts have also been dispatched to Madrid. But with so many charred bodies, experts told El Mundo they feared the job of identifying the deceased could take longer than a week.

German Family Was Onboard

According to Germany's Lufthansa, four Germans had checked in for the code-sharing Star Alliance flight. On Thursday, a spokesman for the Bavarian State Police confirmed that a German family from the Pullach near Munich had checked in, but their fate was unknown. According to Spanish media reports, other foreigners on board included passengers from Colombia, the Netherlands and Scandinavia.

A pathologist on the site, Francisco Alvarez de la Puente, said the possibility that foreigners were on board the flight "could further delay the work of forensics experts." He also said, "Under normal circumstances, in which bodies haven't suffered from such serious injures, we can identify the people within a few hours." But because so many were charred beyond recognition, forensics workers will be forced to rely on DNA analysis and dental records.

Divers searched a creek near the site of the accident during the night for remains. One paramedic described the scene as being "reminiscent of a war." Others compared the scene to "hell." The plane was completely destroyed. "It's a miracle anyone escaped alive," said one eyewitness. An emergency worker added, "The wreck was totally burned out and full of bodies. There was nothing left resembling an airplane."

Emergency workers were able to rescue 19 people from the plane, including three children ages 6, 8 and 11. Of the 162 passengers on board, there were 20 children and two infants. According to El Mundo, an equal number of men and women survived the crash. The survivors are being treated at six hospitals in Madrid. One two-year-old girl died while being transported to the hospital. Two survivors are in "very critical condition," according to doctors, and 12 others are in "critical condition."

A Madrid city official told reporters that the original report of 26 survivors was a result of "errors made in the first moments after the catastrophe." The official, Francisco Granados, added: "A few people who were transported in ambulances were double counted." Almost all of the survivors suffered from serious burns.

Black Boxes Recovered

Meanwhile, experts are continuing to investigate the cause of the disaster. The McDonnell Douglas MD-82's black box was retrieved a few hours after the crash and turned over to investigators.

A Spanish judge has issued a gag order on reporting the results of the investigation before they're officially made public.

Spanish Development Minister Magdalena Alvarez told a radio station that Spanair's maintenance staff had given the plane clearance for takeoff after an inspection. He said the accident appeared to have been caused by "an error in take-off." Responding to allegations Spanair had possibly been negligent in the maintenance of its jets, however, Alvarez said the cause of the accident could only be determined by reviewing black-box information.

Eyewitnesses said the jet's left engine, manufactured by Pratt and Whitney, had caught fire during takeoff, but a retired pilot for Spanish national carrier Iberia told the newspaper El Mundo that pilots regularly train in taking off using a single engine. "A plane doesn't crash due to engire failure or fire on take-off," he told the newspaper.

The flight was scheduled to leave at 1 p.m. from Madrid's Barajas Airport with service to Las Palmas on Gran Canaria in the Canary Islands. The Spanish newspaper El Pais reported that the plane had been delayed by an hour over safety concerns, with the first planned takeoff aborted.

After an inspection, the plane tried to take off, but lost control and swerved off the end of the runway at 2:45 p.m. The jet had barely lifted before it crashed into some woodland and reportedly split apart and burst into flames. The airport was immediately closed for several hours.

Shortly afterward, the airport reopened for a limited number of takeoffs and landings. By early Thursday morning, air traffic had returned to normal.

Zapatero Promises Full Investigation

Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero broke off his holidays to visit with relatives grieving the loss of family members. He said his government would do everything it could to ensure a complete investigation.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel also expressed her condolences to Zapatero, saying she was shocked by the scope of the disaster as well as the number of dead and wounded and expessed her sympathy to the families who had lost relatives.

Spainair, which is part of the Star Alliance network that also includes German flag carrier Lufthansa, has struggled financially recently, fighting rising fuel costs and increasing competition. Its owner, Scandinavia's SAS, has been trying to find a buyer for the moribund airline, which lost $81 million in the first half of the year. Spainair is currently in the process of laying off one-third of its staff and cutting numerous routes.

The last time Barajas Airport, Spain's largest, experienced a major accident was close to 25 years ago. On Nov. 27, 1983, a Colombia Linie Avianca jumbo jet crashed during its approach to the airport, killing 181.

Less than two weeks later, in thick fog, an Iberia jet collided on the runway with an Aviaco plane. Ninety-three people died in the accident.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE