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Jet crashes in Brazil; 176 are feared dead

In past, runway called unsafe for landings in rain

Firefighters worked to put out the fire consuming the wreckage of a Tam airlines passenger plane that crashed yesterday while landing at Congonhas Airport in Sao Paulo . Firefighters worked to put out the fire consuming the wreckage of a Tam airlines passenger plane that crashed yesterday while landing at Congonhas Airport in Sao Paulo . (EVERTON DE FREITAS/AFP/Getty Images)

SAO PAULO -- A passenger jet crashed and burst into flames after skidding off a runway at Brazil's busiest airport yesterday and barreling across a busy highway, officials said. All 176 people on board were feared killed in what would be Brazil's deadliest air disaster.

The crash happened in a driving rain on a runway at Congonhas Airport that had been criticized in the past as being too short. The TAM Airlines jet slammed into a gas station and a building owned by the airline, said Jose Leonardi Mota, a spokesman with the airport authority, Infraero.

TV footage showed flames and clouds of black smoke billowing into the air after the crash.

"I was told that the temperature inside the plane was 1,000 degrees [Celsius], so the chances of there being any survivors are practically nil," Sao Paulo State's governor, Jose Serra, told reporters at the airport. That temperature in Celsius is equivalent to about 1,830 degrees Fahrenheit .

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva declared three days of national morning for the victims, and presidential spokesman Marcelo Baumbach told reporters late yesterday that no death toll or cause would be immediately released because it was premature to do so.

"His worries now are with the victims and the relatives of the victims. That is [the] main concern," Baumbach said, referring to Lula.

The crash -- Brazil's second major disaster in less than a year -- highlights the country's increasing aviation woes. In September, a Gol Airlines Boeing 737 collided with an executive jet over the Amazon rainforest, causing the passenger jet to crash and killing 154 people.

Since then, there have been questions about the country's underfunded air traffic control systems, deficient radar system, and the airlines' ability to cope with a surge in travelers. Controllers -- concerned about being made scapegoats -- have engaged in strikes and work slowdowns to raise safety concerns, causing lengthy delays and cancellations.

TAM Airlines said there were 176 people on board the Airbus 320 that crashed -- 170 passengers and six crew members. A Brazilian congressman was among those on the flight, his aide said.

Vans used by Sao Paulo's morgue sped away from the site hours after the crash, and a doctor helping rescue workers told CBN radio that efforts were being made to identify 30 bodies.

"I can verify 30 burned bodies, and I know that there are burned bodies in another location," Dr. Douglas Ferraz said.

Officials said at least 15 people were killed on the ground. As many as 12 people on the ground were taken to hospitals, Serra said.

TAM worker Elias Rodrigues Jesus, who was walking near the site just as the crash happened, said the jet exploded in between the gas station and a warehouse owned by TAM.

"All of a sudden I heard a loud explosion, and the ground beneath my feet shook," Jesus said.

TAM Linhas Aereas flight 3054 was en route to Sao Paulo from Porto Alegre when the crash occurred upon landing, TAM said in a statement.

Critics have said for years that such an accident was possible at the airport because its runway is too short for large planes landing in rainy weather. Two planes had slipped off the runway in rainy weather Monday, but no one was injured in either incident.

In 1996, a TAM Airlines Fokker-100 skidded off the runway at the airport and down a street before erupting in a fireball. The crash killed all 96 people on board and three on the ground.