- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 18, 2007

SAO PAULO, Brazil — A plane crashed and burst into flames after skidding off a runway that had been criticized as being too short at Brazil’s busiest airport, and all 176 persons aboard were feared dead, the state governor said.

The Tam airline jet slid off the runway at Congonhas airport in a driving rain, then barreled across a busy road at the height of rush hour before slamming into a gas station and a building owned by the airline, said Jose Leonardi Mota, a spokesman with airport authority Infraero.

TV footage showed flames and clouds of black smoke billowing into the air after the crash.

“I was told that the temperature inside the plane was 1,000 degrees [Celsius], so the chances of there being any survivors are practically nil,” Sao Paulo state Gov. Jose Serra told reporters at the airport. That temperature in Celsius is equivalent to about 1,830 degrees Fahrenheit.

As many as 12 persons on the ground were injured and taken to hospitals, Mr. Serra said.

Tam worker Elias Rodrigues Jesus, walking near the site just as the crash happened, said the jet exploded in between the gas station and a warehouse owned by Tam.

“All of a sudden I heard a loud explosion, and the ground beneath my feet shook,” he said, adding that he saw one charred body. “I looked up and I saw a huge ball of fire, and then I smelled the stench of kerosene and sulfur.”

Tam Linhas Aereas Flight 3054 was en route to Sao Paulo from the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre with 170 passengers and six crew members, Tam said.

“At this moment, we cannot determine the extent of possible injuries suffered by the airplane’s occupants and crew members,” the airline said.

Distraught relatives of passengers crowded Tam’s check-in counters in Porto Alegre, complaining hours after the crash that the airline had not released a passenger list, Globo TV reported.

The jet crashed during heavy rainfall, and critics have said for years that such an accident was a risk at the airport because its runway is too short for large planes landing in rainy weather.

A federal court in February briefly banned takeoffs and landings of large jets at the airport because of safety concerns. The airport handles huge volumes of flights for the massive domestic Brazilian air travel market.

An appeals court overruled the ban, saying it was too harsh because it would have severe economic ramifications and that there were not enough safety concerns to prevent the planes from landing and taking off at the airport.

The crash yesterday occurred 10 months after Brazil’s deadliest crash, a September collision between a Gol Aerolinhas Inteligentes SA Boeing 737 and an executive jet over the Amazon rain forest.

All 154 persons on the Gol jet died. The executive jet landed safely.