An El Al cargo jet bound from Amsterdam to Tel Aviv slammed into a block of high-rise apartment buildings after reporting two engines ablaze shortly after takeoff Sunday evening. Flaming debris from the crash torched the suburban complex, and police feared that as many as 200 people had been killed, four of them aboard the plane.
Authorities said there were “uncounted injured” and issued a plea for blood donors.
Police had recovered 40 bodies by early today, but fires were still burning and rescue efforts were hampered by people pushing into the area in search of relatives and by others trying to flee the neighborhood.
Firefighters blocked off the entire area, warning that explosions might be touched off by the fires.
Two buildings containing more than 300 apartment units were struck directly by the crashing plane, turning into twin infernos and burning out of control for at least two hours after the crash.
The crash occurred at the customary hour for Sunday dinner, when most people are at home.
Police initially said that 80 units, with 249 registered residents, were demolished in the two buildings.
Flames forced many residents to leap from their windows. Early this morning, more than six hours after the crash, firemen were still unable to penetrate into parts of the buildings for fear that the structures would collapse.
Nine hours after the crash, the main fires had been doused, but small blazes caused by leaked fuel from the aircraft still burned, police said. There were unconfirmed reports of looting at some nearby stores.
Survivors were evacuated to two nearby sports arenas. “I’m still looking for my children,” a woman, in tears, told Dutch television. “I don’t know where my children are.”
Aviation officials in the Netherlands and government spokesmen in Israel both said the pilot of the plane, a Boeing 747 jumbo jet, reported that two of his engines were on fire 10 minutes after takeoff. They said the pilot turned back to Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport and dumped some of his fuel in a lake before losing altitude and crashing.
A police officer at the scene said the plane tilted to its side as it plummeted between two buildings, “and the apartments just collapsed like a house of cards.”
The neighborhood is a complex of many high-rise apartments, with grassy areas in between, and authorities believed that the pilot, when it became clear that the plane was going down, tried to land in one of the grassy areas.
Despite initial reports from Amsterdam that the plane had exploded in midair after an uneventful takeoff, Israeli officials discounted the possibility that a bomb had exploded aboard the plane.
Amos Amir, El Al’s deputy director general, said on Israeli Army Radio: “It is most likely that something went wrong with two motors on one side of the plane. What we don’t know yet.”
The official Israeli media kept all reports of possible terrorism off the air, waiting to broadcast the news for an hour after the crash, by which time the situation had clarified and there was official comment from El Al’s offices in Amsterdam.
For a country whose news media normally flash the latest developments, this was extraordinary self-control. But the sensitivity of any speculation about terrorism, particularly in the midst of delicate Arab-Israeli negotiations, was clear.
El Al’s security is intense, almost legendary in its thoroughness. Cargo shipments, like passengers, are subjected to thorough scrutiny before they are put aboard aircraft. The planes all have reinforced cargo holds and protected controls to help ensure their survivability in the event of explosions.
Michael Bawly, Israel’s ambassador to the Netherlands, said the cargo plane flew daily from Amsterdam to Tel Aviv, carrying fresh fruits, vegetables and flowers.
The Boeing 747 had flown from New York to Amsterdam earlier Sunday. On the flight to Tel Aviv, it carried a crew of three and one woman passenger, none of them identified.
The 747, which was built in 1989 and was one of El Al’s newest, had taken off into clear skies and moderate winds before disaster struck.
“I saw the plane going nose-down with the left wing up and the right wing down behind the next (apartment) building,” a witness to the crash, photographer Peter de Neef, was quoted by Associated Press as saying. “The engines were smoking . . . and then I heard the pilot trying to pull up and then I didn’t see it and I saw sparks coming in the air.”
Amsterdam Mayor Edward Van Thijn said that 50 apartment units were demolished in the two buildings in the Amsterdam neighborhood of Duivendrecht, about five miles east of the airport and five miles south of downtown Amsterdam.
The Associated Press reported that it was the Netherlands’ worst air disaster and the first El Al crash blamed on mechanical problems in the airline’s 44-year history.
El Al and the Israeli Transport Ministry were each sending a team of investigators to Amsterdam today to investigate the disaster.
In Jerusalem, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, President Chaim Herzog and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres each sent messages of sympathy to the Netherlands, expressing their deep shock over the tragedy and condolences to the families of those killed.
“Our hearts are with you at this moment, and we mourn the Dutch and Israeli casualties,” Rabin said in his message to Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers.
Israelis called their equivalent of the Red Cross, the Magen David Adonim, to offer to donate blood and provide other assistance to the Netherlands.
Jones reported from Amsterdam and Havemann from Brussels. Times staff writer Michael Parks contributed to this story from Jerusalem.