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World - Europe

Pilot error suspected in Guatemala crash

December 22, 1999
Web posted at: 11:44 p.m. EST (0444 GMT)

In this story:

U.S. safety officials on scene

Some call for airport's relocation


GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) -- Pilot error appears to be the cause of the crash of a Cuban jet that skidded off the end of the runway at Guatemala City's airport, killing 26, officials said.

The DC-10, chartered by Cuban national airline Cubana de Aviacion, slammed into houses Tuesday in the poor La Libertad neighborhood after overrunning the airport runway. Several of those killed were on the ground.

Among the victims was Cuban pilot Jorge Toledo, who had more than 35 years of flying experience.

Officials said Wednesday that eyewitnesses reported that Toledo landed the aircraft midway down the runway -- leaving insufficient space to halt the plane.

"From the testimony we have so far, we believe the pilot did not use enough of the runway, landed halfway down and did not have enough time to stop the airplane," Peter Zimeri, director of Guatemala's Civil Aviation Authority, told reporters.

"It was the pilot's first flight to the country. Five days before he had done a recognizance flight, but not as the pilot," he said.

Zimeri said the probe into the crash had just begun and added that no final determination on the cause could yet be made.

The plane, leased by Cubana from French airline AOM, was carrying 296 passengers and 18 crew. Passengers included 276 Guatemalan students attending Cuba's Latin American Medical School and other Cuban universities. At least one of the Guatemalan students was killed.

More than 70 people were injured in the crash.

U.S. safety officials on scene

In addition to Guatemalan authorities, some 20 Cuban investigators arrived late Tuesday to look into the crash. Officials from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board and McDonnell Douglas, the plane's U.S. manufacturer, also are at the scene.

McDonnell Douglas was acquired by Boeing Co. in 1997.

Zimeri said the plane's flight data recorder had been recovered and was being sent Wednesday to Washington for review.

The crash was one of the worst aircraft accidents in Guatemala's history.

Some call for airport's relocation

The crash renewed calls for relocating La Aurora Airport. The airport is set on the edge of a plateau, with the La Libertad neighborhood lying just below it at the end of the runway.

Miriam Duran returned to her house Wednesday to find it reduced to a pile of rubble mixed with pieces of the airplane.

"God is great, my two daughters were able to save themselves, and nobody died in my house," she said.

The neighborhood had been hit before. On April 28, 1995, a DC-8 cargo plane overshot the runway and smashed into a house in La Libertad, killing six people.

And in April 1993, a TACA Airlines Boeing 767 jet ran off a rain-slicked runway at the same airport and crashed into nearby houses. There were no serious injuries.

"For the safety of passengers and the residents of Guatemala City, the relocation of the airport cannot be postponed," the daily Siglo Veintiuno said in an editorial Wednesday.

Copyright 1999 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.

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Cubana de Aviacion
CIA: The World Factbook - Guatemala
Aviation- Homepage
The Boeing Company
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Country Commercial Guide: Guatemala
About Guatemala

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