A Cuban state airliner crashed and burned moments after takeoff from Havana on Friday, killing nearly all 114 people aboard the nearly 40-year-old plane.
It was one of the worst airline crashes in Cuba, which has been struggling to operate with a decrepit fleet of planes that it has blamed partly on the longstanding economic embargo imposed by the United States.
As emergency responders rushed to the scene, footage from the crash site showed plumes of thick black smoke rising. The crushed fuselage, seemingly ripped in pieces, lay in thick vegetation as firefighters doused it with hoses. A crowd rushed in and pulled at least one person on a stretcher from the tangled remains.
State television said the flight had been headed to Holguín, on the eastern part of the island. The plane, a Boeing 737 leased by Cubana de Aviación, a state-run Cuban airline, first went into service in 1979, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations agency, making it one of the older 737s still in commercial operation.
The plane crashed at 12:08 p.m. just after it had departed Jose Martí International Airport, Cuba’s state newspaper, Granma, reported on its website. It said the flight, DMJ 0972, carried 105 people, including at least five children. The plane also carried nine crew members, the United Nations said. Five of them were Mexican, according to Mexican officials.
Cuban state media initially said that all of the people aboard were foreigners but later reversed itself, saying most of the passengers were Cubans. Two of the victims were Argentines, Argentina’s Foreign Ministry said Friday night. The only survivors were three women, according to Granma; the Cuban newspaper Juventud Rebelde initially said one them had died, though it later corrected that report.
Residents of a neighborhood near the airport said that after the plane took off, it suddenly veered in an unusual direction.
Rocio Yoselis Martínez González, 21, a manicurist, was hanging laundry on a clothesline in her front yard when the plane made its odd turn. More worrisome, she said, it was low and descending, barely clearing the wooden telephone poles on her street.
As it roared overhead, Ms. Martínez saw that one of the engines was on fire. The plane then disappeared behind trees and crashed on the edge of a field, hundreds of yards from her house. The tremor from the impact and explosion was so strong that it shook the ground and knocked decorative objects off her shelves, she said.
“I was in shock,” she recalled. “They show things like this in a movie, but in the end it’s a movie.”
Cuba’s new president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, traveled to the site of the crash to oversee recovery efforts along with Health Minister Roberto Morales, while buses carrying relatives of the flight’s passengers headed to Havana to identify the victims.
“The news is not very hopeful,” Mr. Díaz-Canel told Cuban state television.
Cubana de Aviación has struggled to overcome a reputation for poor safety after a string of crashes left dozens of people dead in the late 1990s.
In 1997, a Cubana flight crashed off the island’s southeast coast three minutes after takeoff, killing about 40 people.
A year later, around 80 people were killed when a Cubana plane crashed into a field after taking off from the airport in Quito, Ecuador.
In December 1999, dozens of people, many of them Guatemalan medical students, died when a Cubana flight skidded off the runway in Guatemala City. A week after that, another Cubana flight crashed into a mountain in Venezuela, killing all 22 people aboard.
In the initial shroud of confusion over Friday’s crash, there were conflicting reports over which company owned the plane leased to Cubana.
State media reports first said it belonged to Blue Panorama, an Italian company, but Damojh Airlines, a Mexican company also known as Global Air, later confirmed that it was the owner.
Damojh Airlines began operations in 1990 and has only three airplanes in its fleet, according to a statement from the Mexican Secretary of Transportation.
The statement said that as recently as November, the aircraft had been inspected as part of an annual program, and that its planes had passed a safety test administered by the government agency. In addition, the airline was up-to-date on its permits and was authorized to lease the planes domestically and abroad, including to Cubana.
It remained unclear what caused the crash, but it came against the backdrop of Cuba’s struggle to improve commercial aviation on the island, which has long faced economic constraints from the United States embargo.
A day before the crash, Cuban state newspapers reported that one of the country’s new vice presidents, Salvador Valdés Mesa, met with key officials from the island’s aviation sector to discuss challenges.
The report said that Roberto Peña Samper, the president of the Cuban Aviation Corporation, bemoaned that the “embargo placed by successive American administrations prevents” the island “from acquiring the resources necessary to operate a larger fleet of planes and to enhance airport services.”
Cubana suspended most domestic flights in March, several news outlets reported. Radio Marti, the United States government-funded website, posted a photo of a sign on the airline’s door showing that all the flights had been canceled.
A security guard told Radio Marti that there were “literally no planes,” and added that the ones that remain are “in very bad condition.”
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