BOGOTA, Colombia – It is believed that a lightning bolt from a thunderstorm struck a Boeing 737 jetliner being operated by Aerovias de Integracion Regional SA airline, causing the plane that was carrying 131 people to crash and break apart into 3 pieces as it slid onto the runway on a Caribbean island on Monday, August 16, 2010.
The region’s governor said it was a miracle that only one person died.
Colombian Air Force Col. David Barrero said officials were investigating reports that the plane had been hit by lightning before crashing at 1:49 am (3:49 am EDT; 0649 GMT) on San Andres Island, a resort area of 78,000 people about 120 miles (190 kilometers) east of the Nicaraguan coast.
San Andres Gov. Pedro Gallardo said 125 passengers and six crew members had been aboard Aires Flight 8520, but the only person killed was Amar Fernandez de Barreto, 68.
“It was a miracle and we have to give thanks to God,” that only one person died, said Gov. Pedro Gallardo.
Officials said 119 people were treated or checked at local clinics and five of them were seriously injured.
The state government said in an email that passengers aboard the plane that left Bogota about midnight included eight US citizens and four Brazilians. Later, airline representative Erika Zarate said only five US citizens were aboard, as well as two Germans, two Costa Ricans, and two French citizens. They were not identified.
Passenger Ricardo Ramirez, a vacationing civil engineer, told Caracol Radio that all had seemed normal, even though the plane was flying through a storm, with flashes of lightning, as it neared the airport.
“The plane was going perfectly, we [were] practically going to land, everything was under control,” he said. The accident “appeared out of nowhere.”
The plane hit short of the runway and slid forward on its belly as the fuselage fractured and bits of landing gear and at least one engine were ripped off.
“When we fell, we wound up on the pavement still in the seats, said Ramirez, who struggled to free himself and his wife from their safety belts.
“We tried to get out of the plane, because the plane was starting to shoot flames,” he said. “In a few minutes, a police patrol arrived and helped us.”
Survival was “a miracle of God. Thanks to God we are alive,” Ramirez said, though his wife suffered a dislocated shoulder.
The jet wound up on one end of the runway, crumpled and in pieces, as passengers scrambled or were helped to safety.
Firefighters quickly doused the beginnings of a fire on a wing, said police Gen. Orlando Paez.
Ninety-nine passengers were taken to the Amor de Patria Hospital on San Andres, said the hospital director, Dr. Robert Sanchez.
“It’s incredible. For the dimension (of the accident), there should be more,” he said.
Sanchez said an initial examination indicated that Fernandez de Barreto may have died of a heart attack.
Twenty other passengers were treated at another clinic, according to the national civil aviation agency.
Barrero, commander of the Caribbean Air Group, said by telephone from San Andres that “the skill of the pilot kept the plane from colliding with the airport.”
He said the cause of the accident was uncertain. “You can’t speculate. Lightning? A gust of wind? The investigation will say.”
Dr. Ricardo Villarreal, director of the clinic of the same name, said the pilot suffered minor fractures of the hand or wrist and some scratches and was under observation. He identified him as Wilson Gutierrez.
The airline, Aerovias de Integracion Regional SA, said in a Twitter posting that it has 20 planes, including 10 Boeing 737-100 planes.
It said it was “working and investigating with the aeronautical authorities to determine the causes of what happened.”
Barrero said part of the 7,800-foot (2,380-meter) runway had been closed because parts of the plane were still scattered across it. But enough was usable that air ambulances would be able to land.
Paez said by telephone that a group of police officers who had been waiting at the airport for the plane to take them back to the Colombian mainland aided in rescuing the victims.