- The Washington Times - Monday, September 5, 2005

MEDAN, Indonesia — An Indonesian airliner shook violently, veered to the left and slammed into a bustling neighborhood seconds after takeoff yesterday, bursting into flames and killing at least 147 persons, many on the ground.

Up to 16 passengers survived the crash, including an 18-month-old shielded by his mother’s arms.

The Mandala Airlines plane went down 500 yards from the Medan airport in northern Sumatra, shoving aside cars and motorcycles before plowing into a row of houses. Witnesses said some people were on fire as they fled the shattered wreckage.

Investigators could not determine what caused the crash, Indonesia’s second air disaster in nine months and the sixth worldwide since Aug. 1. Authorities considered foul play unlikely, but were examining whether human error or technical failure were to blame, said airline managing director Asril Tanjung.

Thousands of people, some standing on rooftops and buses, watched as firefighters struggled in a drizzle to put out a fire that spewed thick clouds of black smoke. Several houses and dozens of cars and motorcycles were engulfed in flames.

Survivors said the Jakarta-bound Boeing 737-200 started shaking when it reached an altitude of about 300 feet before tilting sharply and smashing into the ground. Some described a loud bang while the plane was still in flight, followed by a ball of fire.

“It happened very fast. No one even had time to panic,” Rohadi Kamsah Sitepu, 35, said from his hospital bed. “There was an explosion outside the plane followed by huge flames inside the cabin. Then we crashed.

“I struggled to take off my seat belt and then ran through a hole in the fuselage, jumping over charred bodies scattered all over the road,” said Mr. Sitepu, who had minor bruises to his legs. “It’s a miracle I survived. I can’t believe it.”

The plane was carrying 116 passengers and crew members, airline officials said. Sixteen survived, including the toddler and his mother, said Nining, a Mandala spokeswoman who, like many Indonesians, uses only one name. Medan Police Chief Col. Irawan Dahlan said 15 from the plane survived, but Transportation Minister Hatta Rajasa said the number was 10. Mr. Rajasa also said 47 of the victims had been on the ground.

Mr. Sitepu said all the survivors were seated at the back of the plane.

“It was very, very scary, unimaginable,” he told Metro TV station from his hospital bed. “The plane was taking off, but suddenly there was a strong tremor and it jerked to the left and crashed. There was fire everywhere, from the front of the plane to the back.”

With five major airline accidents, August was the deadliest month for plane disasters since May 2002. More than 330 people died in accidents in Peru, Venezuela, Greece and Tunisia last month. A plane overshot a runway in Toronto and caught fire, but no one was killed.

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