TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – A jetliner overshot a runway and raced onto a busy street in the Honduran capital on Friday, killing the pilot, two passengers and a motorist on the ground. At least 65 people were injured.
The Grupo Taca Airbus A320 with 140 people on board was flying a Los Angeles-San Salvador-Tegucigalpa route and was scheduled to head next to Miami. It ended up with its nose smashed against a roadside embankment and its fuselage buckled and broken in places.
Authorities frantically hosed down cars trapped beneath the wreckage as thousands of gallons of fuel gushed from the jet.
Rescuers pried open part of the wreckage to get the pilot and co-pilot out, but the pilot didn’t survive, said Cesar Villalta, director of Honduras’ military hospital.
Passenger Harry Brautigam, a Nicaraguan who headed a regional development bank, died of heart failure. The body of a man trapped under the wreckage was believed to be a taxi driver.
Janneth Shantall, the wife of Brazilian Ambassador Brian Michael Fraser Neele, was also killed in the crash. The former head of Honduras’ armed forces, Gen. Daniel Lopez Carballo, was also among the injured.
A statement from the office of President Manuel Zelaya said the flight originated in Los Angeles and that 65 people were injured in the crash. TACA spokeswoman Sofia Valverde said the flight was scheduled to continue on to Miami.
Taca released a statement saying there were seven Americans, two Spaniards, three Mexicans, two Colombians and nine Argentines aboard the flight. Almost all the remaining passengers were from Central American countries.
Following the crash, officials acknowledged that the runways of Tegucigalpa’s aging Toncontin International Airport are short and its approach paths are dangerous. The airport is ringed by hills, posing a special challenge for pilots.
There was no official cause given for the crash, but weather may have also been a factor. The runway was wet with rain from Tropical Storm Alma.
“The plane inexplicably circled the city twice and it ran out of runway because it landed more than halfway down (the length of the strip),” airport manager Carlos Ramos told the Channel 7 television network.
“(The plane) didn’t touch down where they normally do, at the start of the runway … and that is being investigated,” Ramos said.
Many passengers walked away from the accident.
Mirtila Lopez, 71, said she was talking to another passenger when the plane “left the runway, hit electric cables from a nearby street and then got stuck in the side of a small ravine.”
Honduran air officials said they would close the terminal to large jets and permanently transfer those flights to the former military airfield at Palmerola.
Larger jets will now operate out of the Palmerola airport, also known as the Soto Cano base, about 30 miles north of the capital.
Used by the United States during the Central American civil wars of the 1980s, Palmerola has the best runway in the country at 8,850 feet long and 165 feet wide.
There have been calls for years to replace the aging Toncontin Airport, which is considered to be one of the world’s more dangerous international airports.
The airport was built in 1948 with a runway less than 5,300 feet long — shorter than that of a small field such as the Municipal Airport in Goldsboro, North Carolina.
The altitude of some 3,300 feet forces pilots to use more runway on landings and takeoffs than they would at sea level.
In 1997, a U.S. Air Force C-130 cargo plane overshot the runway at Toncontin and rolled 200 yards before bursting into flames on a major boulevard, killing three people aboard.