An explosion tore apart the Mexicana Airlines jet that crashed last week with the loss of 166 lives, but it is not yet clear whether the blast was caused by a bomb, a spokesman for Mexico’s pilots union said Wednesday.
Jaime Gonzalez was responding to news reports quoting airline crew groups in London and Mexico that one or two bombs ripped through the Los Angeles-bound Boeing 727 and sent it crashing into mountains about 80 miles northwest of Mexico City. There were no survivors in the March 31 crash.
United Press International reported that 10 Mexicana pilots, in group or individual interviews, said two bombs placed aboard the jetliner exploded within 30 seconds of each other. They said that the plane crashed about five minutes after the blasts and that the pilot had signaled the need to make an emergency landing.
In London, Canadian pilot Reg Smith, president of the International Federation of Air Line Pilots Assns., which is about to start a six-day annual conference today, told the Associated Press “there is a strong indication that it’s a bomb.” Thomas Ashwood, the group’s vice president, said, “It appears that the cockpit voice recorder evidence supports this theory.” Officials of the state-owned airline and government sources vigorously objected to the pilots’ comments, calling them premature.
Mexicana Airlines spokesman Fernando Martinez called reports of sabotage “speculation.”
Nevertheless, the government-owned company has issued strict new security guidelines this week, evidently with the aim of assuring that no explosive devices can be placed on its jets.
Gonzalez, of the pilots union, said: “We know there was an explosion in the air. Many things can cause an explosion, including a bomb. But we are reasserting the need to wait for the full study by experts.”
One official source told UPI that a possibility being investigated is that the rear door of the jet may have been improperly secured and blown out. The agency also reported that the pilots said their union had been given access to the plane’s flight-data recorder, which, they held, confirmed their theory.
“The investigation shows the plane lost its tail section before crashing,” a pilot said.
‘Plummeted in a Spiral’
“The first explosion, much smaller, was followed by another that broke away the tail section of the plane. Without control mechanisms, it plummeted in a spiral,” UPI quoted another as saying.
The reports that the Mexicana plane may have been brought down by a bomb or bombs coincides with lethal attacks against a Trans World Airlines jetliner over Greece and a discotheque in West Berlin frequented by American servicemen.
A spokesman for the Mexican government said that authorities have received “dozens” of calls claiming responsibility for the blast but that investigators consider such claims the work of crackpots.
Among the groups asserting that they brought down the Mexicana flight was a Lebanon-based organization called the Arab Revolutionary Brigades. They said it was done in retaliation for U.S. attacks on Libyan ships and a missile base last month in the Gulf of Sidra region.
Mexican Tourist Season
The disaster and uncertainty about its cause also comes at a delicate time for Mexico, which is expecting a heavy influx of tourists for the World Cup soccer tournament starting May 31. Indications that Mexican planes are vulnerable to sabotage could frighten away travelers who had been expected to fill hotels and stadiums.
The internal Mexicana Airlines memo obtained by The Times emphasizes the need to ensure that no baggage unaccompanied by a passenger be placed on board an aircraft. Should a passenger who checked in subsequently not appear for his flight, all his luggage should be removed from the plane, the memo says.
The note, dated April 7 and addressed to airport managers, pilots and stewards, also prohibits the placement of late cargo or baggage without proper documentation. It warns against access of unauthorized visitors in baggage loading areas or in the pilot’s cabin.
Mexicana spokesman Martinez asserted that the emphasis on baggage handling does not mean that a bomb was smuggled aboard the lost plane.
“This does not mean it was sabotage,” he said. “We are simply making sure all our security systems are strict.”
The Mexican Interior Ministry also announced that it is stepping up vigilance at airports.