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Jet flying in haze crashes, killing 234

Published Sep. 27, 1997
Updated Oct. 2, 2005

An Indonesian jetliner that left here carrying 234 people crashed Friday as it approached an airport on the neighboring island of Sumatra, part of a vast region where thick smoke from forest fires has cut visibility.

Witnesses to the crash near Medan said the aircraft exploded on impact, and officials feared no one aboard had survived. Rescue workers located 212 bodies.

The victims were to be removed today, when the search for other casualties and the airplane's flight recorders resumed.

Officials of the Indonesian national carrier, Garuda Airlines, said 11 foreigners were aboard Flight 152, including two Americans.

There was no official word on the cause of the crash, but a number of airports in Southeast Asia have been closed by the thick blanket of smoke caused by hundreds of forest fires burning in Indonesia.

"The weather conditions were okay for landing, but there was smoke and haze around Medan at the time," Communications Minister Haryanto Danutirto said.

The president of Garuda, Supandi, who like many Indonesians uses only one name, said that visibility was about one-third of a mile at the time of the crash at 1:55 p.m. The airline canceled several flights into Medan after the crash, but airport officials said other carriers continued to use the airport.

Witnesses said the plane, an Airbus A-300, was flying low in the smoky haze in a hilly area 20 miles from the Medan airport when it hit a tree and crashed into a ravine, shattering into pieces.

Thick smoke prevented rescue helicopters from flying to the crash site, the witnesses said.

Aviation experts said an investigation would be needed to determine the cause of the crash. But they said the haze could have been a factor. The pilot of the plane reported low visibility shortly before the crash, the state-owner Antara news agency reported today.

The Airbus A-300 is equipped with radar and guidance systems that allow it to land at night or in other conditions of poor visibility, but airport officials would not say whether they were in use at the time of the crash. Nor was it immediately known whether the airport in Medan, the main city in northern Sumatra, was equipped with a simple beacon or the more advanced glide-slope indicator that guides an incoming plane to the runway.

Pilot error was also a possibility, an airline expert said, either related to the smoke or not. A plane still 20 miles from an airport would normally be several thousand feet in the air, and the witness accounts made no mention of a sudden plunge that might indicate mechanical failure. It also was unclear from the witnesses whether the explosion was seen just before or just after the plane hit the ground.

Experts on airline safety have raised questions about the training and performance of Garuda personnel, and at one point the airline was banned from flying to airports in the United States. The ban was appealed and never went into effect.

Since 1982, Garuda has had six major crashes in which the plane was a total wreck. Although three of those crashes ended without fatality, the total death toll in the other three was 56.

"They haven't had a lot of fatalities, but they've trashed a lot of planes," said Darryl Jenkins, a professor of airline economics at George Washington University in Washington. "They are one of the most poorly run airlines in the world."

If the crash did result from the smoke, it adds urgency to an unfolding disaster. The haze is spreading northward from Indonesia through Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Thailand, mingling with the smog of cities to darken beach resorts, hamper agriculture and send tens of thousands of people to hospitals with respiratory ailments.

Airports are closing, shipping lanes are being disrupted, and fishing boats are being forced to stay ashore. A milky gloom is settling over some cities in the region, and people are covering their faces with surgical masks and towels when they venture out.

"The sky in Southeast Asia has turned yellow, and people are dying," said Claude Martin, director general of the World Wide Fund for Nature. "What we are witnessing is not just an environmental disaster but a tremendous health problem being imposed on millions."

Most of the smoke is coming from fires on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. Many of the fires have been set as a cheap though illegal way of clearing land for palm oil plantations.

_ Information from Reuters and the Associated Press was used in this report.