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Investigators probe tourist jet disaster

MADRID, August 21 – Investigators Thursday sought to determine what caused a Spanish tourist jet to break up in flames as it took off from Madrid’s airport, killing 153 people in the country’s worst air disaster in decades.

One engine of the Spanair MD-82 caught fire during the attempted takeoff from Madrid-Barajas airport on a flight to Las Palmas in the Canary Islands at 2:45pm (1245 GMT) Wednesday, Spanish media said, quoting witnesses.

The unstable aircraft then veered off the right of the runway, before breaking up, with fire spreading rapidly through the fuselage.

Transport Minister Magdalena Alvarez said 153 people were killed and 19 injured, two of whom remain unidentified.

There were 162 passengers on board along with 10 crew members, four of whom were traveling as passengers. Twenty two children were among the passengers, two of them infants.

Alvarez said the MD-82 had just taken off, but it was not clear if the back wheels had left the ground.

She said the plane had earlier begun taxiing to the runway, before turning back because of an undisclosed technical problem, which caused a one-hour delay in the takeoff.

The two black boxes were found and were to be analysed.

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Some experts said the fire in the engine was not enough to explain the accident, and other causes may be to blame. The plane should have veered to left if there was a loss of power in the left engine.

Spanish media said the pilot had earlier signaled a malfunction in an exterior temperature gauge, which was fixed before takeoff.

The 15-year-old plane was bought from Korean Air nine years ago, and was overhauled early this year, Spanair said.

Secretary of State for Communication Nieves Goicoechea ruled out terrorism, saying there was "no doubt that it was an accident."

The head of the emergency and rescue services in Madrid, Ervigio Corral, earlier said the bodies were scattered over a wide area, and some of the survivors were able to "walk away" from the accident.

At the airport, disraught friends and family members of those on board were escorted into a special room, where priests and psychologists were there to counsel them. Dozens more waited at Las Palmas airport.

Spanair, Spain’s second largest airline after Iberia, released the list of passengers late Wednesday, but not their nationalities. However, Spanish media said four Germans, two Swedes, a Chilean and a Colombian were among the survivors.

The flight was a codeshare with Lufthansa and the German carrier said four passengers from a Lufthansa flight were registered on the ill-fated Spanair jet and had arrived in Madrid.

Spanair’s managing director Marcus Hedblom described it as "the worst thing that could happen" and expressed his condolences to the families of those killed.

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SAS, the Scandinavian airline which owns Spanair, said a special team had been set up in Madrid.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who interrupted his holiday to go to the scene, said "the government is overwhelmed, very affected, as are all Spanish citizens, by this tragedy."

The Boeing Co., which owns McDonnell Douglas, offered assistance to Spanish authorities investigating the disaster.

It was the deadliest air accident in Spain since a Boeing 747 of the Colombian airline Avianca crashed in Madrid in 1983 killing 180 people.

The most deadly accident in the history of civil aviation occurred in Spain when two Boeing 747s collided at Tenerife airport in the Canary Islands on March 27, 1977, killing 583 people.

Spanair was founded in 1986 and says it has carried more than 104 million passengers from about 100 European destinations since then. It has a fleet of 65 jets.

The carrier, a member of the Star Alliance network, recently proposed shedding almost a quarter of its 4,000 staff because of the fuel price rise crisis and reduced demand.

SAS had put Spanair on the block earlier this year but announced in June that it was abandoning the sale plans due to the slowdown in the aviation sector.

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