August 25, 2005

Scavengers, storms overwhelm Peru crash body hunt

By Mariana Bazo

PUCALLPA, Peru (Reuters) - Hundreds of people swarmed
knee-deep in mud over the chaotic wreck of a Peruvian plane on
Thursday -- some hunting for the black box, some for three
missing victims and others just trying to grab thousands of
bank notes strewn about or other curios, witnesses said.

Police said torrential rain had halted the official search
for three people, among them an Australian woman, still
unaccounted for after a TANS Boeing 737-200 crashed in a freak
hailstorm in Peru's northern jungle on Tuesday, killing 40.

The plane was reduced to chunks of charred rubble, yet more
than half the 98 passengers and crew miraculously survived.
Officials said it was too early to say why it crashed, but
suggested poor weather or pilot error may have been to blame.

Locals were seen walking down the street in Pucallpa, the
poor town where the plane crashed as it came in to land,
carrying seats or metal rods. Thousands of bank notes -- pay
being flown in for police wages -- littered the site.

One boy told Reuters the cardboard box he was carrying
contained a human brain that had been scooped out of the
snake-infested swamp by rescue workers.

More than 100 police, air force and army officers were
trying to keep order as heavy rain and lightning worsened the
chaos in the steamy jungle town.

Distraught relatives said the morgue was overwhelmed.

"There are dead people thrown on the floor, people with no
arms," one woman who identified herself only as Ana Lucia told
RPP radio.

She said her father's body had been stripped of its wedding
ring and an American victim's digital camera had been stolen,
leaving just its case.

Two Americans, a Spanish woman and a Colombian woman were
among the dead. The pilot also died.

About 15 walking wounded waiting to be flown to Lima
complained they had no water or cream for their severe burns.

Some 20 coffins, draped in white cloth, were lined up near
the runway ready to be flown to Lima when the storm subsided.

Several locals said they were spurred on by a police
promise of a reward for whoever finds one of the plane's two
black boxes. Police could not confirm a reward was on offer.

One flight recorder has already been found.


Lucky survivors including a 9-year-old girl who rescued her
baby cousin, and a man who saw his skin shrivel and drop off as
a fireball swept through the plane, told stories of heroism and

Survivors said the flight was routine until the plane hit
turbulence about 10 minutes before landing and fell sharply.

"The plane was shaking and it was hailing hard, with the
ice like marbles, and we asked ourselves if we should really be
trying to land in such harsh weather," said U.S. tourist
Gabriel Vivas, 41, from Brooklyn. "It just didn't feel right."

Vivas, who was traveling with five family members who all
survived, added: "As we were walking, I saw a 1-year-old baby
lying outside the plane in the mud, all bruised and with a
broken arm. I went back and picked it up and we pushed our way
through the brush. I knew I had to help save it."

Peru's Trade and Tourism Minister Alfredo Ferrero blamed
bad weather but said the Andean country -- which attracts
millions of tourists every year -- must upgrade its airlines
and attract private investment in the sector.

"Air safety in Peru is nonexistent. Everyone knows that
getting on a plane in Peru is an adventure," said lawmaker
Jacques Rodrich, a member of Congress' transport commission.

Many of Peru's airports are little more than airstrips and
only the international airport in Lima has radars. Pucallpa
airport, built in the 1960s, has no lights or radars and planes
cannot land there after dark.

TANS, founded in the 1960s by the air force to help serve
remote jungle communities, became a commercial airline in 1998
but is heavily in debt. The crashed plane was built in 1983.

Peru has said it has had preliminary contacts about selling
a stake in the airline to Air China.