An aged four-engine cargo plane crashed onto a crowded highway during evening rush hour Thursday, rammed a busy restaurant and a nearby house, exploded and caught fire. At least 39 people were killed and dozens more were injured, police said.
A spokesman at Benito Juarez International Airport said the Boeing 377 propeller-driven aircraft, carrying eight people and 18 horses, took off in a heavy rainstorm about 5 p.m., just two minutes before it crashed onto the eight-lane highway on the city's western outskirts.
The plane, operated by Belize Air International, a charter cargo service, was on a flight to Miami, officials said.
The pilot and the co-pilot of the nearly 40-year-old aircraft both survived the fiery crash, a spokeswoman for the ABC Hospital told a reporter for Reuters news agency. She said she did not know the nationalities of the two but identified them as Frederick Moore, the pilot, and Robert Banty, the co-pilot.
She said a third foreign survivor was Brian Stuart, but she did not know his nationality.
Three injured Mexicans were also in the hospital and 17 other Mexicans were believed to be in other hospitals, she added.
Reporters at the scene said most of the dead appeared to have been in their cars, the restaurant and a two-story house in which several families lived. At least 26 burned-out cars littered the highway, with many of their occupants killed.
"We rushed to the house. It was completely scorched, people were screaming and screaming," said Miguel Parra, 26, who lives 500 yards from the crash scene.
Parra, who witnessed the crash, said the plane was obviously in trouble.
"The plane's engines seemed to fail, and I saw it skim over the trees, chopping off tree tops. It cleared an overpass over the highway, hit some high tension wires and exploded," said Parra, himself covered with blood after aiding rescuers.
Gas Tanks Explode
The crash was apparently intensified by the explosion of gasoline tanks in a gasoline station next to the restaurant.
Angel Martinez Perez, a station employee, said the plane crashed with little warning.
"All of a sudden I saw a powerful flash in the sky. That was when I turned around and saw the plane started to crash to the ground," he said. "All of us rushed to the plane and started to begin the rescue."
Other residents of the area said they heard an explosion and then saw heavy smoke rising into the air from a distance.
Area Blacked Out
They also said the plane rocked from side to side before crashing onto the highway, clipping power lines and blacking out surrounding neighborhoods.
Elaine Carey, who lives in the residential Lomas Santa Fe neighborhood, said she and her neighbors ran outside when they heard the plane flying low over their homes.
"Down the street there is a house where some Americans live. It was at their window level, trying to climb. It barely made it over the house, and crashed a couple of blocks away," she said. "It went over behind the house and then there was a big cloud of black smoke."
Reporters saw several dead horses, and residents said they had seen what they believed were policemen shooting some of the badly injured animals. One reporter said he saw a horse being led away alive.
Most radio and television stations said the horses belonged to the Mexican team for the Pan American Games scheduled for Indianapolis early next month, but one station quoted a Mexican team official as denying this. Other reports said the horses were privately owned race horses on their way to Miami.
Wide Path of Destruction
At the crash site, crews worked frantically to put out several scattered fires. Rescue workers estimated that the plane left a 450-to-600 foot path of destruction as it skidded along the highway.
The twisting highway running to the city of Toluca is the western continuation of Mexico City's central Reforma Avenue. It is known as one of the country's most dangerous highways in terms of road accidents.
Police completely blocked off the normally busy highway after the crash. Despite the overcast and rainy weather, police helicopters ferried out wounded to city hospitals.
In Seattle, Wash., John Wheeler, a spokesman for the Boeing Commercial Airplane Co. said he was surprised the old Boeing 377 was still flying in the Americas.
"I didn't think any of those things were still in the air," Wheeler said. He said 56 of the civilian planes were made between 1947 and 1950.
Wheeler said the Pratt & Whitney Wasp engines on the 377 have been out of production for about 25 years.
Mexico's worst air crash was on March 31 of last year, when a Mexicana Airlines tourist flight from Mexico City to the resort of Puerto Vallarta crashed into a mountainside 100 miles from the capital, killing all 158 passengers and eight crew members on board.
Among the highest tolls of people on the ground killed by crashing aircraft, according to the "Great International Disaster Book," were:
--Seventy-one dead in a residential neighborhood of Maracaibo, Venezuela, when a DC-9 crashed just after takeoff on March 16, 1969. Another 84 people on the plane died.
--Twenty-four people died when a privately owned F-86 smashed into a Farrell's Ice Cream Parlour as it took off during an air show in Sacramento on Sept. 24, 1972. The pilot of the refurbished Korean War-vintage fighter survived.