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Twin-Engine Commuter Jet Crashes in Brazil, Killing 98

By Sebastian Rotella
Los Angeles Times

A twin-engine commuter jet crashed in the densely populated outskirts of Sao Paulo, Brazil, Thursday, killing at least 98 people, engulfing a neighborhood in flames, and renewing worries about air safety in Latin America.

The crash occurred about 8:25 on a sunny morning, moments after the Dutch-made Fokker-100 operated by TAM, a Brazilian regional airline, took off from Congonhas Airport on a 45-minute flight to Rio de Janeiro.

The plane veered suddenly to the right, then plummeted into Vila Santa Catarina, a working-class community about a mile from the airport on the periphery of South America's most populous city.

The plane smashed through 13 stores and houses, spreading a river of blazing fuel in its wake, witnesses said.

"It was total madness," said Dona Tuca, a distraught neighbor interviewed at the scene. "Many people almost died in the flames. My neighbor's daughter was burned to death."

The six crew members and 89 passengers died, authorities said. The official toll had reached 98 Thursday as rescue workers picked through a hellish landscape of smoking rubble and incinerated bodies.

At least 13 people were injured, and there were reports that more people were killed on the ground. The casualties ranged from a group of bankers on the plane to working-class people whose one-story houses erupted in flames around them.

The leader of a Brazilian pilots association declared at a news conference Thursday that his group had criticized the airline for allegedly unsafe practices.

"We have made several allegations," said Pedro Azambuja, president of the National Federation of Pilots and Mechanics. "Although it spends a lot on marketing, TAM is a champion in irregularities. It forces employees to work excessive hours, and it violates labor legislation with its pilots."

There was no comment from the airline, described by officials and experts as having a good safety record.

Civil aviation investigators hope to determine the cause of the crash within three months.

Meantime, a troubling spate of accidents throughout Latin America has intensified concerns among pilots and international air safety watchdogs that many airports here operate on the edge of catastrophe.

Although Brazil has among the best safety records on the continent, it suffers from many of the problems that make the region one of the world's most dangerous places to fly.

Latin America has eight times more accidents than the United States and Canada, says the Flight Safety Foundation, a nonprofit monitoring organization funded by the airline industry and based in Arlington, Va.