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Indonesian jetliner crash-lands, bursts into flames; at least 21 dead

Published: Wednesday, March 7 2007 9:06 a.m. MST

Indonesian Air Force personnel stand guard near the wreckage of a Garuda jetliner after it caught fire upon landing at an airport in Yogyakarta early today.

Sumaryanto Bronto, Associated Press

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YOGYAKARTA, Indonesia — A packed jetliner crash-landed and erupted in flames Wednesday, killing at least 21 people trapped inside the burning wreckage. More than 115 others escaped through emergency exits as black smoke billowed behind them, officials and witnesses said.

Survivors said the Boeing 737-400 operated by the national carrier, Garuda, shook violently as it approached Yogyakarta airport too fast in clear weather. It shot off the runway, bouncing three times before plowing through a fence and coming to a halt in a rice field.

"Suddenly there was smoke inside the fuselage; it hit the runway and then it landed in a rice field," local Islamic leader Dien Syamsudin told El-Shinta radio station. "I saw a foreigner. His clothes were on fire and I jumped from the emergency exit. Thank God I survived."

An Italian survivor said the plane appeared to be going too fast as it approached the runway.

"The plane landed at a crazy speed. It was going into a dive and I was certain we would crash on the ground," Alessandro Bertellotti, a journalist with Italian broadcaster Rai, told the ANSA news agency. "I was sitting behind the wing. ... I saw that the pilot was trying to stop it, but it was too fast. It literarily bounced on the strip."

The government ordered an investigation into the crash, the third involving a commercial jetliner in the country in as many months. On New Year's Day, a jet plummeted into the sea, killing all 102 people on board. Weeks later, a plane broke apart on landing, though there were no casualties.

About 19 foreigners were on board Wednesday's flight from Jakarta, nine of them Australians. Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said five of the nine survived the fire with injuries, and information was urgently being sought on the others.

"The plane came hurtling in to the runway at a much greater speed than an aeroplane would normally land at," Downer was quoted as saying by Australia's The Age newspaper.

"It is a terrible tragedy," Australian Prime Minister John Howard told a nationally televised news conference. "Many lives have been lost, and our love and sympathy and condolences go to those who are suffering distress and grief."

Transport Minister Hatta Radjasa told reporters in Yogyakarta that 21 of the 140 passengers and crew on board died, while two others remained unaccounted for.

Television video shot by a cameraman for Australia's Seven Network who survived showed passengers fleeing the plane as black smoke, then orange flames, poured from the fuselage.

An explosion and fireball ripped through the air, apparently as the fire reached a fuel tank, according to the video. It showed dazed and burned victims, including Indonesians and Westerners, sitting on the floor or lying on gurneys in the airport terminal.

Bertellotti, the Italian survivor, told the British Broadcasting Corp. that the jet "kept rolling even after we reached the end of the runway."

"It got dark, objects started flying around, people started screaming. I remember that I kept cool, thinking only about escaping, nothing else," he said.

"A fire started three or four seats in front of me, on the right hand side of the plane. Everyone started screaming. A woman behind me kept pushing me and saying, 'Go, go, go,"' he said. "Luckily, I was close to the emergency exit and I jumped out, together with many other people. We landed on mud and grass. Soon, another explosion followed.

"After the second explosion, I didn't see more people jumping out of the plane."

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono ordered an investigation, appointing the security minister to look into possible "nontechnical" causes, said spokesman Andi Mallarangeng, in an apparent reference to sabotage.

It took more than two hours to put out the fire.

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