A chartered U.S. jetliner slammed into a mist-shrouded mountain and burst into flames here Wednesday, killing 137 Italian tourists and an American crew of seven on board, local government officials said.
"The force of the explosion and the number of mutilated bodies recovered indicate everyone was killed," a Santa Maria Island official told reporters.
Portuguese state television said an emergency medical team that arrived on Santa Maria from Ponta Delgada, the principal city in the Portuguese mid-Atlantic chain, was told that there was no hope of finding survivors.
The 20-year-old Boeing 707, owned by Independent Air Corp. of Smyrna, Tenn., crashed on approach to the Santa Maria Airport for a refueling stop on a flight from Bergamo, Italy, to the resort of Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic.
"The crash scene is indescribable," Portuguese state radio journalist Margarida Pereira said from the crash site on the 1,800-foot high Pico Alto.
"I saw only one whole body . . . the rest are torn to pieces. The wreckage is spread over a wide area and the rescue teams are finding it difficult to reach the bodies," she said.
Officials said more than 50 bodies, most of them badly mutilated, had been recovered about four hours after the crash.
"The plane was very low, everything seemed perfectly normal, then it turned and flew straight into the mountain," said witness Manuel Vairos Figueredo, the mayor of the fishing village of Santa Barbara, near the airport.
"There was a tremendous explosion. The plane burst into flames, and trees around it caught fire. Nobody could possibly have survived," Vairos Figueredo told the Associated Press.
All Appeared Normal
Earlier reports had spoken of an aborted emergency landing, but airport officials later told reporters that all appeared normal before the crash.
The pilot radioed Santa Maria Airport control tower three minutes before the crash but did not report anything wrong, Portugal's LUSA news agency quoted an unidentified civil aviation official as saying.
The agency said the control tower then tried repeatedly to contact the plane without success.
Radio journalist Pereira said the weather was misty around the tiny island's highest peak. "Some local people said they saw the plane catch fire before hitting the mounbtain, though there is still a lot of confusion," she said.
Portuguese TV said an anonymous caller to its newsroom in Lisbon claimed responsibility for the crash on behalf of an organization called the Brigada Terrorista International (International Terrorist Brigade).
Police said they knew of no group by that name and suspected that the claim was a hoax.
In Smyrna, A. L. Pittman, president of Independent Air, identified the seven crew members as: Leon Daugherty, 41, of Nashville, Tenn., the captain; Sammy Adcock, 36, Nashville, 1st officer; Jorge Gonzalez, 34, Rex, Ga., the flight engineer; and flight attendants Yvette Murray, 26, of Marietta, Ga.; Angela Urban, 24, West Palm Beach, Fla.; Helen Ziegler, 45, Warner Robins, Ga., and Sabrina Cromarty, age unknown, Atlanta.
Commander Viera da Silva of the Portugal's Pilots' Assn. described the island airport as perfectly safe and said he could not understand what the plane was doing near the mountain. "The runway approaches the sea at both ends so it is puzzling why the crash occurred on the mountain," he said in Lisbon.
The U.S. government is sending four safety experts to the crash site to assist in the investigation.
A spokesman for the Boeing Co. said it is sending one investigator now and later will likely send additional specialists when more details of the accident are known.
Pratt & Whitney, maker of the 707's engines, said it too is sending an investigator to the crash site.
Santa Maria lies about 1,200 miles from the Portuguese mainland, and communications with the island were hampered by a flood of telephone calls.
A spokesman at Italy's Bergamo Airport, where the flight originated, said Italian tour companies had arranged the charter.
The U.S. armed forces have a big air and naval base at Lajes on the island of Terceira, north of Santa Maria.