DURANGO, Mexico (AP) — Passengers and officials say a strong burst of wind hit an Aeromexico jetliner on takeoff, moments before it crashed, leaving those aboard with mere minutes to evacuate the burning plane.
The plane tried to take off from Durango city in a severe storm Tuesday, but smacked down on its belly in a nearby field. With the engines torn off, it began to burn.
"It was really, really ugly," said Lorenzo Nunez, a passenger from Chicago who fled the plane with his two sons and wife. "It burned in a question of seconds," he told reporters, snapping his fingers for emphasis.
Survivors said the Embraer 190 plane burst into flames right after it hit the ground.
"We felt the flames coming quickly ... there was a lot of smoke," Jaquelin Flores told the newspaper El Sol.
Romulo Campuzano, head of a political party in Durango state who was on the plane, told Foro TV that both wings were on fire as he bolted from the aircraft.
Durango state Gov. Jose Aispuro said a gust of wind hit flight AM2431, which was heading to Mexico City just as it was lifting off the tarmac, forcing the pilot to abort takeoff.
Passengers said they heard a loud noise as the plane's left wing banged to the ground, and both engines tore loose. The plane stayed upright, though, and the escape slides activated.
All 99 passengers and four crewmembers made it off the plane, but the pilot was severely injured.
About 49 people were hospitalized with injuries. Some people had burns on a quarter of their bodies, said Durango state Health Ministry spokesman Fernando Ros.
Aispuro said all were expected to live.
An Illinois priest was on the plane. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago said the Rev. Esequiel Sanchez suffered some injuries, but was alert and resting.
Aispuro said it was too soon to speculate on the cause of the crash. Mechanical failure and human error could be factors, but certainly the weather wasn't favorable. Strong wind and heavy rain with marble-sized hail lashed Durango city, even damaging hangars at the airport.
"The most important thing in the seriousness that is an accident of this nature is that there were no deaths — that's what is most encouraging for us," Aispuro said at a news conference.
After the accident, several passengers walked away from the plane before first responders arrived. Some sought medical help, while others rushed home to loved ones. Officials spent much of the afternoon tracking down survivors to ensure that everyone was accounted for.
Aeromexico Chief Executive Officer Andres Conesa described the day as "very difficult" and credited the timely reaction of crew and passengers for the lack of fatalities.
Conesa said the passengers included 88 adults, nine children and two babies and the crew consisted of two flight attendants and two pilots.
He said the jetliner had been sent for maintenance in February and the crew was well-rested, having started their work day in Durango.