Workers dig through debris looking for crash victims 11 of 234 on board have been identified

September 28, 1997|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- Working in a thick haze from nearby forest fires, rescuers on the island of Sumatra dug yesterday through the debris of an airliner that crashed Friday in Indonesia's worst air disaster.

The rescuers were shown on television carrying away bodies in black plastic bags or wrapped in sarongs or large banana leaves. Officials said that so far, only 11 bodies had been identified.

Officials said all 234 people on board, including 12 crew members, were killed when the Airbus A-300 crashed in remote, hilly terrain 30 miles short of the airport at the city of Medan, 900 miles northwest of Jakarta.

Airline officials said they had not recovered the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder and did not yet know the cause of the crash or whether choking smoke had contributed to it.

Sumatra is one of the areas in Indonesia where vast forest fires have been spewing tremendous clouds of smoke into the sky, blanketing much of southern Southeast Asia in what has become a major international disaster.

Many airports in several countries have been closed because of the haze, which is also darkening the sky and causing respiratory problems among millions of people in Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Thailand.

On the same day as the Airbus crash, two cargo ships collided in the Strait of Malacca, between Indonesia and Malaysia, where the smoke has severely reduced visibility. Twenty-eight crew members were reported missing.

The airline, Garuda Indonesia, said it would begin an inquiry into the plane crash. Airbus Industrie, the aircraft's maker, said it would also send investigators.

The official Antara news agency said the pilot had radioed ahead for landing instructions minutes before the crash and had said the haze was causing poor visibility.

But officials at Medan's Polonia International Airport said that it was equipped with modern guidance systems and that the aircraft was approaching for what should have been a normal instrument landing.

Airline officials said visibility at the airport at the time of the crash was 600 yards, which is sufficient for an instrument landing.

The head of the Garuda Indonesia Communications Forum for Pilots, Shadrach Nababan, said: "Haze is an ordinary thing for pilots. There are instruments in the plane and on the ground that can be used."

Witnesses said the aircraft appeared out of the haze, hit the tops of trees and then exploded, though it was not clear whether the explosion came before or after the impact.

A plane 20 miles from an airport would normally still be thousands of feet in the air.

The smoke caused the closure of the airport yesterday, as hundreds of grieving relatives waited in anguish for a flight that was scheduled to take them to the crash site.

Some wept as they examined green paper boarding passes for the names of friends and relatives.

Antara said that two Americans, six Japanese, four Germans and a Belgian were aboard. There were unconfirmed reports that British and Taiwanese citizens were also aboard.

Rescuers said the bodies were strewn over a wide area, some of them in trees, some buried in the mud. In many cases, only parts of bodies were recovered. A mass burial was planned for those that could not be identified.

Garuda, Indonesia's flagship carrier, has had six major crashes since 1982.

Pub Date: 9/28/97

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