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Brazil's aviation crisis deepens

Radar failure forces officials to ground flights

Family members and friends of the victims of the TAM Airlines 320 crash protested against air safety conditions in Brazil. Family members and friends of the victims of the TAM Airlines 320 crash protested against air safety conditions in Brazil. (MARCOS D'PAULA /STR/AFP/Getty Images)

SAO PAULO -- A radar failure over the Amazon forced Brazil to turn back or ground a string of international flights yesterday, deepening a national aviation crisis just hours after the president unveiled safety measures prompted by the country's deadliest air disaster.

Further shaking Brazilians' confidence, authorities said they had mistaken a piece of the fuselage from Tuesday's accident for the flight recorder and sent it to a laboratory for analysis.

The loss of radar from 11:15 p.m. Friday to 2:30 a.m. yesterday caused numerous planes heading to Brazil from the United States to return to their points of origin and make unscheduled landings at airports from Puerto Rico to Chile.

The failure was caused when a short circuit turned off electricity during routine maintenance Friday night in the jungle city of Manaus, Brazil's Air Force said.

When the power went out, 17 flights were within the coverage area of the radar system in a large swath of the Amazon, the Air Force said. Nine planes continued to their destinations, and eight were rerouted. None of the jets was in danger, officials said. Other flights bound for Brazil were canceled.

"This is total chaos here. I have never seen anything like it, and it makes me feel very unsafe," said Eli Rocha, 52, of Oklahoma City, who was trying to board a flight to Dallas yesterday at Sao Paulo's international airport. The flight was crowded with weary Americans arriving on other delayed or diverted flights.

The radar problem prompted American Airlines to divert 13 Brazil-bound planes that had departed from Dallas, Miami, and New York, said company spokeswoman Mary Frances Fagan.

Two American Airlines flights from Sao Paulo to Miami made unscheduled landings in the jungle city of Manaus, said Celso Gick, a spokesman for Brazilian airport authority Infraero. Brazilian media reported that another American Airlines flight landed in Santiago, Chile.

Delta Airlines spokeswoman Thonnia Lee said six of its flights were also diverted -- three from the United States and three from Brazil. Flight 121 from New York was diverted to San Juan, Puerto Rico, before refueling and taking off again for Sao Paulo, arriving more than four hours late.

Jose dos Santos, a 43-year-old cafe owner, was aboard that flight when the crew announced Brazil was not letting airplanes enter its airspace because of the radar failure.

"I was saying, 'Oh, my God, my life is over!' I was in a panic, all I could think about was the Gol jet that crashed in the Amazon last year," Santos said, referring to the September crash of a Gol Airlines Boeing 737 over the rain forest that killed all 154 people aboard.

Four United Airlines flights were also canceled as a result of the outage, spokeswoman Robin Urbanski said. In addition, Brazil's Globo TV reported on its website that Brazil-bound flights from Colombia, Panama, and Venezuela were affected.

The flight cancellations and diversions followed a nationally televised speech by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who tried to calm the nation Friday night by announcing new safety measures and saying authorities will build a new airport in Sao Paulo, where an Airbus A320 operated by TAM Airlines crashed Tuesday, killing 191 people.

All 187 people aboard and at least four on the ground died when the jetliner raced down the runway, skipped over a crowded highway, and exploded in a fireball that was still smoldering three days later. Many experts have said that the short, rain-slicked runway could have contributed to the disaster at the downtown Congonhas airport, Brazil's busiest.

Silva's speech was his first public pronouncement about the crash, except for a brief statement.

"Our aviation system, in spite of the investments we have made in expansion and modernization of almost all Brazilian airports, is passing through difficulties," Silva said.

"The security of our aviation system is compatible with all the international standards. We cannot lose sight of this."

Silva said aviation officials will limit the number of flights and restrict the weight of planes traveling into Congonhas airport and that the location of the new airport will be chosen within 90 days.