HAVANA (CBS News) — A Cuban-operated airliner with at least 110 people on board crashed into a cassava field just after takeoff from Havana’s international airport on Friday. There appeared to be mass casualties as Cuban officials said three people had survived, but had yet to give an official toll.
Authorities said there were 104 passengers and nine foreign crew members on the flight that was headed to the eastern city of Holguin. Witnesses said they saw a thick column of smoke near the airport.
Witnesses said they saw a thick column of smoke near the airport.
“A column of black smoke rose up in the sky,” resident Ana Gonzalez told Reuters news agency.
The plane lay in a field of yuca-root plants and appeared heavily damaged and burnt. Firefighters were trying to extinguish its smoldering remains. Government officials including President Miguel Diaz-Canel rushed to the site, along with a large number of emergency medical workers. Residents of the rural area said they had seen some survivors being taken away in ambulances.
“My daughter is 24, my God, she’s only 24!” cried Beatriz Pantoja, whose daughter Leticia was on board the plane. Pantoja and other family members were rushed to a private area inside an airport terminal in the afternoon.
Cubana, the country’s national airline company, rented the plane from Blue Panorama, Cuban media reports. Mexican authorities say the Boeing 737-201 was built in 1979.
A statement from the country’s Transportation Department identifies the pilot and co-pilot as Capt. Jorge Luis Nunez Santos and first officer Miguel Angel Arreola Ramirez. It says the flight attendants were Maria Daniela Rios, Abigail Hernandez Garcia and Beatriz Limon.
It adds that the plane was rented by Cuban state carrier Cubana de Aviacion from Aerolineas Damojh. That’s the legal name of a small charter company that also goes by Global Air.
Relatives of passengers rushed to the scene, among them a man who said that his wife and niece had been on board. He declined to provide his full name before he was taken to an airline terminal where relatives were being asked to gather.
A military officer who declined to provide his name to reporters said that there appeared to have been only three survivors in critical condition, but other officials declined to confirm that figure.
Authorities are still gathering information about the crash and cannot confirm if Americans were on the flight or not, a U.S. State Department official said Friday.
“We offer our sincere condolences to the families and loved ones of the victims. We cannot yet confirm whether U.S. Citizens were on board,” the official said in a statement.
Cuba’s First Vice-President, Salvador Valdes Mesa, met Thursday with Cubana officials to discuss improvements in its heavily criticized service. The airline is notorious among Cubans for its frequent delays and cancellations, which Cubana blames on a lack of parts and airplanes due to the U.S. trade embargo on the island.
The crash Friday was Cuba’s third major fatal accident since 2010.
Last year, a Cuban military plane crashes into a hillside in the western province of Artemisa, killing eight troops on board. In November 2010, an AeroCaribbean flight from Santiago to Havana went down in bad weather as it flew over central Cuba, killing all 68 people, including 28 foreigners, in what was Cuba’s worst air disaster in more than two decades.
The last Cubana accident appears to have been on Sept. 4, 1989, when a chartered Cubana plane flying from Havana to Milan, Italy, went down shortly after takeoff, killing all 126 people on board, as well as at least two dozen on the ground.
Cubana’s director general, Capt. Hermes Hernandez Dumas, told state media last month that Cubana’s domestic flights had carried 11,700 more passengers than planned between January and April 2018. It said that 64 percent of flights had taken off on time, up from 59 percent the previous year.
“Among the difficulties created by the U.S. trade embargo is our inability to acquire latest-generation aircraft with technology capable of guaranteeing the stability of aerial operations,” Hernandez said. “Another factor is obtaining part for Cubana’s aircraft.”