The mid-afternoon crash, which occurred as the Spanish airplane left the busy Madrid Barajas International Airport, killed 153 people, officials said.
“I have never seen anything like this in my life,” ambulance driver Luis Ferreras told the Spanish newspaper El Pais.
Spanair spokesman Sergio Allard said 172 people were on Flight JK 5022, which was bound for the Canary Islands, off the coast of northwestern Africa. The numbers were frequently updated throughout the day — at one point it was thought 26 people survived and 175 people were on board.
Bodies too hot to touch
Lines of ambulances raced to the airport soon after the crash as a large plume of smoke rose from the accident site.
Emergency services personnel scrambled to pull passengers from the burning plane, while helicopters poured water to douse the flames. A makeshift morgue was set up at the city’s main convention centre, officials said.
“Only the tail was recognizable,” rescue worker Herbigio Corral said of the airplane, according to Reuters. “There was wreckage scattered all over the place and dead bodies across a wide area. A lot of them were children.”
A police officer said the bodies were so hot that police could barely touch them and told El Pais that the shattered wreckage bore no resemblance to an airplane.
Spanish Development Minister Magdalena Alvarez confirmed the number of survivors was only 19.
A Spanish Red Cross official told BBC that they are providing psychological support to family and friends at the Madrid and Canary Islands airports, where many had gathered to greet or send off their loved ones. Passengers from Germany could also be aboard the flight since it shares a Lufthansa flight code, LH 2554.
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero interrupted his holidays in southern Spain to handle the crisis in Madrid, while the Spanish Olympic Committee said the Spanish flag would fly at half mast in the Olympic village in Beijing, Reuters reported. Spain’s national soccer team wore black armbands at a friendly match with Denmark.
Plane passed January inspection
The development minister said the aircraft’s flight data recorders have been recovered.
The plane’s first takeoff attempt was delayed after the pilot reported a breakdown in a gauge that measures temperature outside the plane, Spanair spokeswoman Susana Vergara said.
Vergara said the gauge was fixed. The plane crashed on the second takeoff attempt.
El Pais reported that an engine on the plane’s left-hand side caught fire as it was taking off.
“We don’t know the reason for the fire, but that seems to have caused the accident,” El Pais editor Guy Hedgecoe told CBC News.
Hedgecoe said that shortly after the fire began, the plane then descended onto the airstrip, crashed and caught fire at the end of the runway. The plane ended up in a wooded area at the recently built Terminal 4, located on the edge of the airport grounds.
The plane, bound for the popular holiday destination of Las Palmas, was a McDonnell Douglas 82, or MD-82. Boeing, which bought out McDonnell Douglas in 1997, said it is prepared to send as least one representative to Madrid to help with the investigation, should Spanish authorities require assistance.
Spanair said the jet, which was 15 years old, last passed an inspection in January, and no problems had been reported since then.
Wednesday’s plane crash was the deadliest in Spain in more than 20 years. In February 1985, an Iberia Boeing 727 crashed near Bilbao in the Basque region, killing 148 people.
The worst plane crash in aviation history occurred in the Canary Islands, when two fully loaded Boeing 747s crashed into each other in 1977, killing 583 people.