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'Miracle' in Colombia crash

Photo by Nate McCullough

Photo by Nate McCullough

BOGOTA, Colombia -- A Boeing 737 jetliner filled with vacationers crashed in a thunderstorm and broke apart as it slid onto the runway on a Caribbean island Monday. Only one of the 131 people on board died, and the island's governor called it a miracle.

The plane hit short of the runway on Colombia's San Andres Island and skidded on its belly as the fuselage fractured and bits of landing gear and at least one engine were ripped off. The jet wound up on one end of the runway, crumpled and in pieces, as passengers scrambled or were helped to safety.

Officials were investigating reports the Aires airline jet was hit by lightning before the crash on the resort island, Colombian air force Col. David Barrero said. He said other possible causes were being investigated as well.

Of the 125 passengers and six crew members aboard Aires Flight 8520, the only one killed was a 68-year-old woman, Amar Fernandez de Barreto, San Andres Gov. Pedro Gallardo said.

''It was a miracle and we have to give thanks to God,'' Gallardo said.

Officials said 119 people were treated or checked at clinics and five of them were seriously injured. The airline said at least five U.S. citizens were on the plane, and the U.S. Embassy in Colombia confirmed at least four Americans suffered injuries and were receiving care.

Airline representative Erika Zarante said four Brazilians, two Germans, two Costa Ricans and two French citizens also were on the plane.

The accident occurred so suddenly that the pilot did not report an emergency to the control tower, said Col. Donald Tascon, deputy director of the civil aeronautics agency. He said the plane's low altitude as it prepared to land -- perhaps 100 feet just before the crash -- may have averted worse damage.

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 coming in perfectly. We were just about to land, everything was under control,'' he said. The accident ''appeared out of nowhere.''

After the plane hit and skidded to a stop on the pavement, Ramirez said he struggled to free himself and his wife from their seat 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.

Firefighters quickly doused the beginnings of a fire on a wing, police Gen. Orlando Paez said. He a group of police officers who were waiting at the airport for the plane to fly them back to the mainland aided in rescuing victims.

Barrero, commander of the Colombian air force's Caribbean Air Group, said by telephone from San Andres that ''the skill of the pilot kept the plane from colliding with the airport.''