MADRID — It was a troubled flight from the beginning.
One attempt at takeoff was aborted. Departure was delayed by more than an hour. Passengers, many of them parents traveling with their young children, were grumpy and hot, eager to get on with it, to start their holidays in the alluring Canary Islands.
Several used cell phones to call relatives and report the problems. Finally, they said by phone, the flight was going to take off.
It tried. But seconds after Spanair Flight JK5022 barreled down a new runway at Madrid's Barajas airport and began to lift off, the jet jerked to the right and plowed into a tree-covered ravine. The fuselage broke into two pieces, maybe more, according to witnesses at the airport, and burst into flames.
At least 153 people were killed in the deadliest accident at Madrid's ultramodern airport in a quarter-century. Nineteen people, including two children, survived the fiery crash, though some were in critical condition.
"I pulled out about seven people alive," said Francisco Cruz, a private pilot who was among the people pressed into rescue service. "And then it was all dead bodies."
The accident was also the latest in mounting woes for Spanair, the Spanish unit of Scandinavia Airline Systems (SAS) and Spain's second largest carrier.
Spanair officials said it was too early to know the cause of the crash of the 15-year-old, U.S.-made McDonnell Douglas MD-82. The MD-82 is a type of MD-80, which by accident data alone is considered one of the safest airliners flying.
While preparing for a first takeoff attempt, the plane's pilot reported a breakdown in a gauge that measures temperature outside the plane. The gauge was fixed, delaying the departure, said Spanair spokeswoman Susana Vergara. It was on the second takeoff attempt that the plane crashed.
Sergio Allart, commercial director for Spanair, said the aircraft had passed a routine inspection in January. He said he could not speculate on the cause of the crash but offered the airliner's cooperation with investigators, who will include a team from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board.
The plane crashed on a hot, clear day around 2:45 p.m. at one of Europe's premier airports. Scores of ambulances, fire trucks and other rescuers descended on the site, while helicopters overhead poured fire-retardant spray on the wreckage. White and gray smoke billowed into the air, visible for miles.
"This is a huge tragedy," said Spanish Development Minister Magdalena Alvarez, whose portfolio includes civil aviation.
Rescuers dragged hot-to-touch corpses from the wreckage throughout the afternoon, and the survivors, many burned and with broken bones, were rushed to hospitals. Helicopters flew over, dumping water on fires.
Some survivors were hurled from the plane by the impact and landed in a stream, where the water shielded them from burns, rescuers said. And some survivors were even able to walk away from the accident, said Ervigio Corral, head of emergency rescue services.
But, he said, he and the other emergency workers encountered a grim scene of widely scattered corpses, many of them children.
"The scene is devastating," said Pablo Albella, an emergency rescue worker. "The fuselage is destroyed. The plane burned. I have seen a kilometer of charred land and few whole pieces of the fuselage. It is all destruction."
Alvarez said the jetliner had barely gotten airborne when it veered right, crashed and broke into pieces.
The Spanair flight was headed for Las Palmas, a popular summer vacation spot on one of the largest of the Canary archipelago off West Africa. Many of those on board were families destined for late-August holidays, and a number had originated in Germany and other parts of northern Europe, officials said. Two Chileans were also aboard, the airline said.
Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero interrupted his summer vacation in southern Spain and returned to Madrid, where a makeshift morgue was set up at the city's main convention center. Relatives began arriving Wednesday night to identify bodies, though many were burned beyond recognition.
Spanair had already been suffering from a number of setbacks, including heavy debt and orders from the parent company to lose 1,000 jobs and eliminate routes. Spanair pilots earlier Wednesday had threatened to go on strike to protest cutbacks. SAS has been trying unsuccessfully to sell the carrier.
Information from the Associated Press and New York Times was used in this report.