Crash miracle as 36 survive deadly Venezuelan disaster

CARACAS, Sept 13, 2010 (AFP) - Fifteen people died in a plane crash in eastern Venezuela, but 36 others miraculously survived after the pilot alerted air traffic control that something was wrong moments before disaster struck.

The plane, carrying 47 passengers and four crew Monday from the Venezuelan Caribbean resort island of Margarita, burst into flames as it hit the ground near a steel works owned by Sidor, in mainland Bolivar state.

Rescue personnel inspect the wrecked fuselage of the Conviasa Airline plane. AFP

"In total we have 36 survivors and 15 dead. The survivors are being looked after," said Transport and Communications Minister Francisco Garces.

"Given the condition of the plane, I think we were very lucky."

Most of the survivors had sustained burns and were traumatized by the event, but none was in life-threatening condition, Garces said.

The Conviasa Airlines ATR-42-300 plane went down about six miles (10 kilometers) from Puerto Ordaz, on the Orinoco River. It broke in two and caught fire as it hit the ground. The cause of the crash was not immediately clear.

Officials said the quick response by the emergency services after the pilot warned air traffic control that the flight was in trouble prevented a higher death toll.

Rescuers arrived at the scene quickly with medical helicopters to fly the wounded to local hospitals that had been placed on alert. A burns unit was also on stand-by to treat those caught in the blazing wreckage.

"There's been a miracle here," said Bolivar state Governor Francisco Rangel Gomez.

President Hugo Chavez issued a statement expressing his "deepest... condolences and solidarity" with the victims of the crash.

"All of us in Venezuela are in mourning, heavy with sadness for this tragedy," he said, and announced three days of official mourning across the South American country.

The plane went down at a site mostly used by Sidor to store scrap industrial material. None of its employees was injured in the crash, but they were among the first at the scene helping rescue passengers, Rangel Gomez said.

The governor said the pilot appeared to have "lost control" of the plane and radioed a control tower to warn that the flight was having technical difficulties.

A spokesperson for ATR, the aircraft manufacturer, said the firm was investigating the accident.

"We are working in close cooperation with the company (Conviasa) and authorities to understand the causes of the accident. At the moment we do not know what caused it," a spokesman in Paris told AFP.

ATR aircraft like the one that crashed Monday are made by a European consortium composed of EADS and Alenia.

The firm, based in Toulouse, France, employs some 850 people and is considered a global leader in the manufacture of small turbo-propelled planes with 50-75 seats, with some 52 percent of the market.

It has received over 1,000 orders from 150 companies in 80 countries since its creation, and made around 1.1 billion euros in 2009.0

Conviasa is a state-owned airline started in 2004 that flies to destinations as varied as Tehran, Damascus, Buenos Aires and several Caribbean nations.

The last major air accident in Venezuela was in February 2008 and also involved an ATR-42-300, which crashed in the Andes, killing 46.

Three years earlier, 160 people were killed in a Venezuelan crash that was one of the world's deadliest ever.

The flight was en route to Martinique and the majority of those killed -- 152 of the passengers -- were from the small Caribbean island. An investigation into the disaster later concluded human error was to blame.

In a separate case of transport trouble involving Margarita, Venezuela's busiest resort destination, authorites also said Monday they rescued 21 passengers who went missing over the weekend on three small watercraft.

Interior Minister Tareck El Aissami said authorities however were still searching for 10 people on one of the three boats that had gone missing Saturday on crossings from Los Testigos an island group north of Margarita.

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