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200 feared dead in El Al plane crash

Up to 200 people were feared dead Sunday after an Israeli cargo airliner crashed into two adjoining apartment buildings in the Netherlands' worst-ever air disaster.

The El Al Boeing 747-200F slammed into two nine-story apartment buildings in a densely populated suburb shortly after taking off, directly hitting 80 apartments and engulfing much of the complex in flames.

It carried a three-man crew and one woman passenger, all of whom were killed, the carrier said. The plane was carrying 114 tons of cargo, he said.

The pilot was trying to wrestle the jumbo jet back to Schiphol Airport 10 minutes after takeoff when both engines on the same wing died, airline officials said.

An official refused to rule out sabotage as a possible cause.

Israeli politicians and El Al officials would not speculate on what caused the crash. Transport Minister Yisrael Kessar told a news conference in Jerusalem that a government committee and an El Al committee would jointly investigate the crash.

Civil aviation officials said two of the jet's four engines had fallen off and were recovered from a lake 9 miles from the crash site.

Horror-struck residents said the aircraft veered sharply to one side before smashing into their homes. Some said they saw an explosion before the plane hit the apartment buildings.

"I saw sparks and a flash of light. Then there was a bang and we ran outside. All nine floors burst into flames almost immediately. The worst thing was the hundreds of people who were screaming for their lives. It was terrible," one witness said.

"I saw a fireball outside and several flats burst into flames. There was lots of smoke and the buildings shook," said a resident of a neighboring building.

Hundreds of ambulances, fire engines and other emergency vehicles rushed to the scene. They were joined by scores of taxis, which helped ferry casualties to the hospital.

A Dutch radio reporter said he had seen looters running through evacuated apartments hunting for anything they could take away. Police also reported looting in a nearby shopping mall.

Hours after the aircraft crashed at 6:22 p.m. (1:22 p.m. EDT) firefighters were battling to control blazes at the complex.

City officials said the precise number of dead would not be known until daylight when rescue workers began picking through devastated apartments.

Amsterdam Mayor Ed van Thijn said 12 bodies were taken to the morgue immediately after the crash. "I'm afraid that this number will increase markedly," he said.

City officials said 239 people were registered as living in the 80 apartments directly hit by the plane. Police estimated 150 to 200 were in residence at the time.

Dozens of panic-stricken residents were injured when they jumped from their blazing apartments to escape the flames.

A Reuters reporter at the scene said the plane punched a hole about 30 yards wide in the corner of the two adjoining apartment buildings, scattering burning rubble over a huge area. A strong smell of jet fuel enveloped the site.

The El Al airliner had arrived at Schiphol airport at about 3 p.m. (10 a.m. EDT) Sunday from New York and picked up additional freight before taking off for Tel Aviv.