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Probe continues into Dutch plane crash

Yitzhak Fuchs, captain of El Al Flight 1862, was looking forward to his retirement, scheduled for the end of the year.

This would be a simple flight: Fuchs, along with three other crew members, would take a cargo jet, loaded with textiles and electronic goods, on a 4{-hour trip to Tel Aviv, Israel.

The plane took off at 6:22 p.m. (1:22 p.m. EDT). After just six minutes in the air, Fuchs realized something was terribly wrong.

The Boeing 747-200 had climbed slowly from Amsterdam's Schiphol airport, banking to the east. Fuchs, who had flown with El Al 28 years, radioed a distress signal. One of two engines on the right wing was on fire.

At an apartment complex about 10 miles away, in the suburb of Bijlmermeer (pronounced Buy'l-mur-MEER), families were finishing dinner, watching television or taking walks on a cool, tranquil evening around sundown, unaware of the disaster that would soon descend.

Fuchs began to circle. He told the airport tower he would jettison fuel to lighten the plane, in an effort to make it back to the nearest runway for a landing. But aviation analysts say Fuchs may not have had time to dump enough fuel.

Six minutes after the message by Fuchs, the other starboard engine ignited. Within two minutes both flaming engines broke loose. They were later found in a lake, nine miles from the crash site.

The plane yawed out of control, hurtling downward toward Bijlmermeer. The 60-year-old captain sent his last desperate mayday call.

"Going down! Going down!" he cried.

At 6:36 p.m. the plane, carrying 114 tons of cargo, crashed into the crowded apartment complex.

It punched a massive hole in the middle of the 10-story, two-wing complex, setting off an inferno.

Fuchs and the three crew members were killed. Late Monday, 11 bodies had been recovered in the rubble of the apartment buildings. Authorities said as many as 250 people were missing.

If the casualty toll is that high, the crash would be the worst air disaster ever in numbers of victims outside the plane.

It was the second time in a year both engines have ripped from the wing of a Boeing 747-200. As in the Amsterdam disaster, the crash of an Air China 747 freighter on Dec. 29, 1991, involved separation of both right-wing engines from the aircraft without warning. A months-long search has been under way in the South China Sea for key parts missing in that crash, including the suspect pins.

Both planes were 747-200s, about the same age _ 12 years for the Air China plane and 13 years for the El Al plane _ and both were taking off with heavy loads. Both pilots lost control after the engines ripped free. All five crew members were killed in the Air China crash.

Seattle-based Boeing issued a service bulletin late Monday asking all airlines to inspect fuse pins that help connect engines to the wings of that model and two others: the 747-100 and 747-300.

A team of investigators from El Al, arriving at Amsterdam to begin an inquiry into the accident, visited the site of the crash, El Al's first since 1951.

The Dutch government is conducting its own investigation, while delegations from the Israeli government, Boeing, and Pratt & Whitney, the engine manufacturer, have also been sent. The flight and voice recorders from the plane were still missing Monday.

Sabotage has not been ruled out but is seen as extremely unlikely. Dutch Transport Minister Hanja Maij-Weggen told a news conference "the first impression is that there was a technical problem."

Aviation analysts said the jet was designed to run on one engine, but that wing damage could have made that difficult. They said debris from the first blown engine likely damaged the second.

Witnesses described a nightmarish scene in which a pleasant Sunday evening was suddenly transformed into a conflagration after the plane crash, with some screaming residents hurling themselves from balconies to escape the flames while others ran into the yard with their clothes on fire.

From a vantage point across a canal, Romens Stetea, 27, stared at the salvage operation Monday. He pointed at a smoldering fourth-floor apartment from which he had rescued his wife and child. Then he gestured at another blackened hole on the ninth floor, where his mother, brother and nephew lived. Nothing had been heard from them since the accident and Stetea feared the worst.

"I'm here to see what's happened to my family," he said.

Stetea said he had been walking nearby with friends when, with a tremendous roar, the jet screamed into the apartment complex and exploded against a high-rise.

Stetea ran back to his apartment in the adjacent building and, breaking down a blocked door, helped his wife and young son to safety. But he said when he turned back to go up to his mother's apartment, the fire had spread too far.

"I screamed "Get out, get out.' I wanted to save them but it was too late," he said quietly. "I couldn't do anything. You could see only the fire and the people crying. I cried because I couldn't do anything."

The grimy working class Bijlmermeer housing estate near Duivendrecht into which the plane crashed has a large population of African and Caribbean immigrants.

The neighborhood includes many illegal aliens, police say, adding to the difficulty of counting victims.

_ Information from Associated Press, the Washington Post and the New York Times was used in this report.

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