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Search Continues for More than 200 Feared Dead in El Al Crash

By Steve Vogel
Special to The Washington Post

BIJLMERMEER, Netherlands

With a cold wet wind whipping up ashes, Dutch firefighters Monday dug through a gruesome burial mound of rubble, searching for the bodies of more than 200 people feared killed Sunday evening when an Israeli cargo jet crashed into a crowded apartment complex in this suburb of Amsterdam.

A nine-story section of an apartment building, home until Sunday to some 250 people, lay in complete ruin, pulverized by the El Al Boeing 747, which crashed after two of its engines fell off. Two adjoining portions were badly damaged, with small fires still erupting today from behind scorched windows.

It was the second time in a year both engines have ripped from the wing of a Boeing 747-200 and Boeing Monday told airlines to inspect their planes.

From a vantage point across the canal, Romens Stetea, 27, stared at the salvage operation. He pointed at a smoldering fourth-floor apartment from which he had rescued his wife and child. Then he gestured at another blackened hole on the ninth floor, where his mother, brother and nephew lived. Nothing had been heard from them since the accident and Stetea feared the worst.

"I'm here to see what's happened to my family," he said.

By nightfall only 14 bodies had been recovered from the crash site. But city officials said Monday evening that at least 250 are feared to be missing, up from the 209 they reported early this morning.

If the casualty toll is that high, the crash, whose cause is under investigation, would be the worst air disaster ever in numbers of victims outside the plane. In addition, all three crew members and a passenger were killed.

The scale of the disaster has rocked the Netherlands, dominating conversation and news coverage in the small country of 15 million people. "It's the largest catastrophe in the postwar history of the Netherlands _ a very shocking experience for all of us," a somber Amsterdam Mayor Ed van Thijn told reporters Monday morning.

Witnesses described a nightmarish scene in which a pleasant Sunday evening was suddenly transformed into a conflagration after the plane crash, with some screaming residents hurling themselves from balconies to escape the flames while others ran into the yard with their clothes on fire.

Stetea, a stocky energy plant worker with his long black hair in a ponytail, said he had been walking nearby with friends when, with a tremendous roar, the jet screamed into the apartment complex and exploded against a high-rise.

Stetea ran back to his apartment in the adjacent building and, breaking down a blocked door, helped his wife and young son to safety. But he said when he turned back to go up to his mother's apartment, the fire had spread too far.

"I screamed `Get out, get out.' I wanted to save them but it was too late," he said quietly. "I couldn't do anything. You could see only the fire and the people crying. I cried because I couldn't do anything."

Authorities have been able to provide anxious residents with little information. "I've called to see what happened but I don't get an answer," Stetea said.

Many residents are still searching desperately for unaccounted-for friends and relatives.

The grimy working class Bijlmermeer housing estate near Duivendrecht into which the plane crashed has a large population of African and Caribbean immigrants. The neighborhood includes many illegal aliens, police say, adding to the difficulty of counting victims.

Police are painstakingly trying to confirm how many people were in each apartment.

Officials say the amount of rubble means that salvage operations may take days, with firefighters proceeding carefully out of concern for further collapse.

"It may be 60 feet deep," a fire department official said after inspecting the rubble Monday morning.

One measure of the lethality of the accident is the relatively low number of injured. The Academic Medical Center, a major hospital a few miles from the site, quickly cleared 160 beds after receiving word of the crash, but received only 27 injured, with a handful more going to other area hospitals. "It was unexpectedly low," said Frank van Denbosch, a hospital spokesman. "A lot of people probably just didn't have a chance to escape."

Monday afternoon, the Dutch monarch, Queen Beatrix, visited a sports center near the accident site in which survivors are being sheltered.

Exactly what caused the Boeing 747 to lose two engines remains a mystery.

A team of investigators from El Al, arriving at Amsterdam Monday to begin an inquiry into the accident, visited the site of the crash, El Al's first since 1951, a spokesman told the Associated Press.

The Dutch government is conducting its own investigation, while delegations from the Israeli government, Boeing, and Pratt & Whitney, the engine manufacturer, have also been sent.