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Chartered Plane Crashes into Caribbean, 189 Thought Dead

By Don Phillips
The Washington Post

A charter airliner carrying German tourists home from Caribbean vacations plunged into the sea shortly after taking off from the Dominican Republic late Monday night, killing all 189 people aboard. Rescue workers who pulled scores of mangled bodies from the water Wednesday said some showed evidence of shark attack.

The Turkish-owned Boeing 757, leased to a Dominican airline, was only minutes out of the resort town of Puerto Plata and had reached an altitude of about 7,000 feet when it abruptly turned back toward land and then disappeared from radar screens. It was to have stopped in Gander, Newfoundland, and then continue on to Frankfurt and Berlin.

By late afternoon, local officials had reported finding 106 bodies at the crash site, according to the Reuter news agency. Little of the aircraft was found intact; rather, the scene was described as a miles-long slick of floating debris - seat cushions, empty life rafts, clothing, human remains.

"This is the ocean and this is the sharks' home," Dominican air force Maj. Emmanuel Souffront said.

In recent years, the Dominican Republic has become a popular destination for German tourists, many of whom travel by low-cost charter flights, such as the one that ended in disaster Monday night. It was only the second time a 757 - a 13-year-old, twin-engine Boeing design - had crashed; the first occurred just weeks ago, on Dec. 20, when an American Airlines 757 slammed into a mountainside near Cali, Colombia, apparently because of pilot error. Only four of 164 people aboard survived.

The cause of Monday's crash may not be known for some time, because most of the aircraft's fuselage - and the key flight-data recorder and cockpit voice recorder - sank more than two miles deep in the Caribbean, about a dozen miles off the Dominican Republic's northern coast. A spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, which is assisting Dominican authorities in the investigation, said the U.S. Navy had been asked for advice on how to retrieve the recorders from the crushing ocean depths.

Reports on events preceding the crash - both from the officials at the scene and aviation authorities around the world - were confused and sometimes contradictory. At first, Dominican officials said the plane's flight crew did not indicate any trouble after taking off from Puerto Plata, a tourist center 130 miles northwest of Santo Domingo, the capital. Gen. Hector Roman, director of the Dominican civil aviation agency, said later, however, that the crew radioed it was returning to Puerto Plata and that its last radio transmission was "Stand by."

The charter flight between the Dominican Republic and Frankfurt was normally made by a Boeing 767, a somewhat larger, later-model aircraft. Some authorities said the Dominican airline - Alas Transporte de Internacional - decided to use the 757 Monday night because of mechanical trouble with the larger plane; others said, however, that there were not enough passengers to justify operating the 767, which seats up to 300.

The 757 that crashed was an early version of the Boeing model and was not originally designed for long flights over water. The aircraft was delivered to Eastern Air Lines in 1985 and under various owners had made more than 13,400 flights since then-about normal for an 11-year-old plane.

The aircraft could not have been used on flights to the United States because both the Dominican Republic and Turkey are on special Federal Aviation Administration "watch lists" of countries that in the U.S. view do not have adequate governmental oversight of their airlines.

The Dominicans are on the toughest of the lists, which prevents any Dominican airline from entering the United States. The Turks are on a second-tier list, which allows their national airline to make flights here under FAA supervision.

Because the crash was the second involving a 757 in so short a period, it drew the attention of aviation authorities worldwide. Various U.S. sources said last night that they knew very little so far about the crash, including whether the plane broke up in flight or at what angle it hit the water. In addition to the safety board, the Federal Aviation Administration, Boeing and engine manufacturer Rolls Royce said they are sending investigators to the Dominican Republic.

One of the most difficult aspects of the investigation will be trying to recover the flight-data and voice recorders, presumably now at the bottom of the sea. Such needle-in-haystack searches have provided an extra dose of drama in other crashes, including a Pacific Ocean search for a cargo door that blew off a Hawaii-bound United Airlines Boeing 747 and swept nine passengers out through the gaping doorway. The Navy's deep-sea submarine Sea Cliff found the door in 14,100 feet of water in 1990.

Investigators may also be hampered as they explore the convoluted relationships between a U.S.-built airliner owned by a Turkish airline, leased to a Dominican airline and chartered by a German tour company.