Cabin crew aboard the the ill-fated Spanair flight which crashed on take-off at Madrid airport yesterday refused to let a passenger off despite earlier technical problems with the aircraft, the man’s family said today.
The chilling accusation came to light as the budget airline defended its decision to clear the MD-82 jet for take-off despite aborting an earlier attempt because a gauge showed an overheating air-intake valve. The device was switched off and the flight went ahead.
Of the 172 people aboard flight JK5022, only 19 survived. Witnesses said the plane’s left-hand engine burst into flame as it lifted off the runway and the aircraft broke up and crashed back to earth in flames.
The plane is designed to be able to take off even if one engine fails, but aviation sources in Spain suggested today that the burning engine might have spun round and thrown deadly debris into the aircraft’s rudder and right-hand engine. Another hypothesis emerging today was that the plane deployed its reverse-thruster, normally used at touchdown.
As relatives of those aboard the plane waited for news of their loved ones, their anger has focused on why Spanair allowed the pilot to take off despite the aircraft’s problems. Javier Mendoza, deputy director of operations for the company, told a press conference that all standard procedures had been followed.
The story of the passenger forced to remain aboard emerged at the Madrid hotel taken over by the airline to host relatives of the victims.
Spanish media said that an unidentified woman at the hotel told reporters that her husband had texted her at 12.30 pm – almost two hours before the accident – saying: “My love, there’s a problem with the plane.”
She phoned him back and told him to get off the flight, but he said: “They won’t let me off.”
The woman’s son, who was with her at the hotel, said that the cabin crew had told the man to get back in his seat.
Relatives of the passengers were arriving today at a Madrid convention centre, which also used as a makeshift morgue after the al-Qaeda train bombing of March 2003. Only 37 of the bodies have been identified so far.
“I’d kill the bastard who did this,” one man shouted at a television crew as he drove past the building.
Priests and psychologists comforted distraught relatives overnight at Barajas airport and at the Las Palmas airport on Gran Canaria, where flight JK5022 was headed. The plane was operating on a codeshare with Lufthansa although only four Germans were aboard the flight, a Bavarian family whose fate remains unclear.
According to a list published by Spanair, the vast majority of the passengers were Spanish, but officials said that there were also passengers from Sweden, the Netherlands and Chile.
The plane was 15 years old, bought by Spanair from Korean Air in 1999, and was overhauled in January.
As three days of national mourning were declared, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, the Prime Minsiter, interrupted his holidays in southern Spain to fly to the scene. The Spanish Olympic Committee said the Spanish flag would fly at half mast in the Olympic village in Beijing.
Spanair, owned by the Scandinavian airline SAS, has been struggling with high fuel prices and tough competition. It announced it was laying off 1,062 staff and cutting routes after losing some £40 million in the first half of the year.
Air safety experts pointed out that Europe had been free of major plane disasters in recent years but take-offs still posed the greatest risk for flight crews.
The MD-82 should be able to lift off with only one engine, and pilots are trained for such eventualities, but one hypothesis that emerged today was that the plane’s thrust reversers, normally only used for when it touches down, could have been deployed. That would explain why the pilots were unable to control the craft despite reaching normal take-off speed.
In May 1991, a Lauda Air Boeing 767 crashed in Thailand with the loss of 223 lives when the thrust reverser automatically went into operation.
“Automatic thrust reverser deployment will be one of the things that air crash investigators will be looking at,” said Dr Guy Gratton of the school of engineering and design at Brunel University in West London.