Relatives of Plane Crash Passengers Desperately Search for Survivors : Aviation: Weather conditions in Colombia stall official rescue efforts. U.S. jet's data recorders are recovered.


Desperate relatives Friday continued the search for passengers on a plane from Miami that crashed on its approach to the Cali airport in southwestern Colombia.

Inspired by reports that a local resident, Dr. Juan Carlos Reyes, had helped rescuers save his 19-year-old brother, Mauricio, after all 164 of those aboard the American Airlines flight were believed dead, brothers, sisters and parents kept searching, even after official rescue efforts were suspended late Thursday because of fog and cold.

Investigators may soon have a better idea of what caused the crash, thanks to the recovery of both the voice recorder and the flight data recorder, which could explain why the Boeing 757 veered 10 miles off course and slammed into a mountain.

But as the hours passed and the list of survivors shrank from nine Thursday to four on Friday, the chances of finding anyone else alive seemed to diminish. Rescuers Friday concentrated on preparing bodies for shipment from the crash site to the morgue.

Officials were at a loss to explain why they had identified four survivors Thursday who now cannot be found. A fifth man was rescued but died in the helicopter that carried him from the crash site to a hospital.

The error--heart-rending for the families of some passengers initially identified as survivors whose fate is still unknown--is indicative of the slipshod management of Colombian civil aviation, which contributed to the accident in the first place, critics said.

Accusations against the industry mounted in the aftermath of the Wednesday night crash, the latest in a series of accidents that have made the inefficiency and poor performance of the civil aviation authority one of the most hotly debated political issues here. Colombia has one of the worst airline safety records in the world, according to international authorities.

The International Airlines Passenger Assn., based in Dallas, recommends that people avoid flying in and out of Colombia because, between 1983 and 1992, the country had an accident rate 20 times that of the United States, which rates best.

In mid-1993, a flight from Panama on the Colombian airline SAM crashed outside the northern city of Medellin, killing more than 130 people. Pilots complained bitterly, blaming the accident on a missing radio beacon that had been destroyed by guerrillas and never replaced because of bureaucratic snafus.

The average time for replacing such equipment is two years, Congressman Pablo Victoria said. He added that there is no real maintenance of navigation aids. "In some cases," he said, "the technicians have left maintenance of the beacons in the hands of local peasants"--an accusation that aviation authorities deny.

Guerrillas and corruption compound the problem, he said. Because of corruption or inefficiency, navigation aids and runway equipment have sometimes remained in the storage facilities of customs "for years, and then it deteriorates," he said.

Aviation authorities confirmed that some navigation equipment outside Cali was destroyed three years ago by guerrillas and never replaced. However, they said there were sufficient navigation aids functioning in the area to guarantee safety.


"We don't have any indications of sabotage from within or from outside the plane," Juan Carlos Esguerra, the minister of defense, told RCN Radio. "And we have no indications whatsoever of any explosion or technical failure such as the engines ceasing to work or the flaps malfunctioning. We . . . are investigating all possibilities."

The story of one survivor and the brother who helped rescue him highlighted the problems.

"We were at the airport and the plane was not arriving," Juan Carlos Reyes recalled. He and others awaiting the aircraft's arrival found out about the accident, he said, when a woman entered the lobby screaming, "The plane fell!"

The airline did not provide any information, he said.

"I was walking around the airport feeling depressed and saw an ambulance," he said. He discovered it was the first headed to the crash site and persuaded the driver that, as a doctor, he could be helpful.

He rode 3 1/2 hours in the ambulance to the spot in the road closest to where the crash occurred then helped set up camp. After resting, at dawn, the rescuers hauled stretchers for four hours up the mountain and into the jungle, where temperatures were near freezing.


"We found the plane broken into a thousand pieces," Reyes said. "It was a Dante-esque scene, with Christmas gifts hanging from giant trees."

But they could not find any bodies and returned to the campsite. A later rescue group sent a radio message that four survivors had been found. Reyes was walking out to meet the party when someone about 100 yards ahead of him yelled back, "He looks just like you. He must be your brother."

Mauricio, a business administration major at the University of Michigan, is now in stable condition, conscious but mute, according to his brother. He writes his parents notes that read, "I am afraid. I do not want to die."

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