A Mexicana Airlines Boeing 727, en route to Los Angeles from Mexico City with Easter holiday travelers, crashed and burned Monday in the mountains west of the Mexican capital after the craft apparently lost cabin pressure and the pilot made an emergency descent. All 166 people aboard were reported dead.
Mexicana’s Flight 940, scheduled to stop at the coastal resorts of Puerto Vallarta and Mazatlan before continuing to Los Angeles, struck a mountainside in the rugged Sierra Madre of central Mexico after takeoff from Mexico City’s Benito Juarez International Airport 15 minutes earlier.
Hours after the crash, a Mexican government spokesman said that the wreckage of the plane was still in flames and that all aboard had died in what aviation officials called the worst air disaster in Mexican history.
7 Americans Aboard
The Mexicana Airlines office in Los Angeles issued a statement later Monday saying that seven U.S. citizens and two Canadians were among the victims, but it did not give their names or addresses. It remained unclear whether any Southern California residents had been aboard.
Airline officials said earlier that none of the passengers on the Mexico City-Puerto Vallarta leg of the flight were bound for Los Angeles, but they added that three Mexicana crew members based in Los Angeles were aboard.
There were a total of 158 passengers and eight crew members on the jet, airline officials in Mexico City reported.
Farmers in the area said they saw the plane explode in a ball of fire in the air before it crashed into a mountain named El Carbon, 7,792 feet above sea level. There was no immediate confirmation of those sightings by Mexican investigators.
The plane reportedly split into two sections, and debris was scattered over an area of more than half a mile.
Mexico City air traffic controllers lost contact with the plane at about 9:15 a.m., and shortly thereafter police helicopters spotted its burning wreckage about 80 miles west of Mexico City in the state of Michoacan.
Mexicana officials reported that Capt. Carlos Guadarrama Sistos, a veteran airline pilot with 15,000 hours of flight time, radioed the Mexico City air traffic control center about 10 minutes after takeoff and said the plane was losing altitude.
Pilot Seeks Permission
“The captain asked for permission to descend because they had problems about the pressurization of the plane,” said airline spokesman Jose Henonin in Mexico City. “That was the last time they heard from the captain--when he asked for permission to descend 6,000 feet. He was flying at 26,000 feet (before the apparent pressurization problem).” Officials could offer no immediate explanation for the loss of cabin pressure, but Mexican aviation experts were studying two tapes of radio communications between the flight and ground controllers in a search for clues.
Rescue workers on the ground and in helicopters made their way to the crash site in rugged country near the village of San Miguel el Alto, while a makeshift morgue was set up at the airport of Morelia, capital of Michoacan state.
Witnesses in the hamlet of Pomoca said the plane appeared to catch fire and explode before plunging into the mountain.
A Pomoca farmer’s son, Noee Garcia, 15, told Reuters news agency that he was driving his cows through fields when he saw the 727 overhead. “It had smoke billowing from the rear, and then I saw flames. Suddenly it seemed to explode and burst in two,” he said.
In the ravine where the main part of the fuselage lay, Red Cross, police and local volunteer rescue workers continued to look for survivors, but with little hope.
Fire-blackened bodies and disembodied limbs were scattered outside the wreckage, and the rescuers said more were inside.
Mexicana representatives in the Mexican capital said most of the passengers were Mexican citizens, but a spokesman for the French Embassy reported that the dead included a family of eight French citizens--one of whom was Mexico City businessman Javier Larpilleux, regional director for Mexico and the United States of the international travel agency Wagons-Lits.
Notimex, the government news agency, said that among those aboard was Horacio Estavillo, a journalist who was communications director for the Fisheries Department and who had been director of the news agency.
Special teams from the federal attorney general’s office and Mexicana were sent to the site after President Miguel de la Madrid ordered an investigation into the crash.
Airline officials set up a special waiting room at the Mexico City airport to comfort friends and relatives of passengers on Flight 940.
Dozens of anxious people came to the airport. “Where did it crash, please?” asked one tearful young man. “Can we go there? We want to go there any way we can.”
Gloria Aviles sobbed uncontrollably, mourning the death of her daughter Guadelupe, bound for the Pacific Coast and a new civil service job. “She was so excited about it; I just can’t believe it’s true.”
The scene at Los Angeles International Airport, where the flight had been scheduled to arrive at 12:10 p.m., was quieter, and no one appeared to be waiting for passengers from the downed plane.
One woman, at first near hysterics, was calmed after airline officials told her that her brother was on an earlier plane.
Easter week vacationers scheduled to return here on the flight from Puerto Vallarta and Mazatlan were shifted to a substitute Mexicana plane, which arrived at LAX in mid-afternoon.
The 727 that crashed was a Model 200, a “stretched” version of the familiar three-engine craft, which can carry a maximum of 189 passengers. Tom Cole, a spokesman for Boeing in Seattle, said the plane was delivered to Mexicana in May, 1981.
More than 1,800 727s have been manufactured since 1963, making it the best-selling commercial aircraft of modern times, according to John Wheeler, another Boeing representative.
The 727 has the second-best safety record in commercial airline history (after the Boeing 737), Wheeler said. The 727 has no history of structural problems that might lead to depressurization of the cabin, aviation authorities here agreed.
Cole said Boeing officials and U.S. National Transportation Safety Board investigators were preparing to fly to Mexico City to assist Mexican authorities in their investigation.
Mexican travel officials said last week was one of their busiest in history, with airlines, railroads and highways jammed. Although many Mexicans had returned home by last weekend, others stayed on vacation, since schools throughout the nation remain closed this week.
The crash was the first major accident involving a Mexicana flight in 17 years. In September, 1969, a Mexicana 727, flying to Mexico City from Chicago, crashed just before landing, killing 40.
The worst crash in Mexico, before Monday’s disaster, occurred June 4, 1969, when a Mexicana 727 hit a mountain near Monterrey, killing 79.
The Mexican government took over majority ownership of the once privately controlled Mexicana in 1982, after a period of strikes and economic setbacks for the airline, which operates 45 jets on routes between Mexico, the United States, Central America and Cuba.
Mexico’s other major airline, government-owned Aeromexico, suffered several crashes in the 1970s and early 1980s, the worst of which killed 32 near Chihuahua in 1981.
In 1979, a Western Airlines DC-10 crashed while landing in Mexico City; 75 people died.
Today’s crash was the second in Mexico this year. A DC-3 belonging to Aero California, a Mexican-owned regional carrier, crashed near Los Mochis on the mainland coast of the Gulf of California last January, killing all 21 people aboard.
Times staff writer Julio Moran in Los Angeles and bureau assistant Steve Weingarten in Mexico City contributed to this report.