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24 still missing, presumed dead in Peru crash


In this story:

May 7, 1998
Web posted at: 11:09 p.m. EDT (0309 GMT)

LIMA, Peru (CNN) -- Rescuers searching a swampy Amazon jungle Thursday following an air crash near a remote oil camp were not expected to find any more survivors, according to the Occidental Petroleum Corp.

"Given the time which has passed, the chances of finding more survivors are considered remote," the U.S.-based company said in a news release. It added that three of the 13 survivors were in critical but stable condition.

Fifty bodies have been found, and with the official death toll at 74 on Thursday, authorities said there was little hope of finding more survivors among the 24 people still unaccounted for.

Medical teams were delayed more than a day in reaching the site where a 15-year-old Peruvian air force Boeing 737 chartered by Occidental crashed at 9:30 p.m. Tuesday as it tried to land at the camp near the Ecuadorean border. There were 79 Occidental workers and subcontractors aboard, and eight crew.

The survivors had to be carried on stretchers Wednesday in pouring rain to a medical post in Andoas, several hundred miles north of Lima, because the weather prevented their evacuation by helicopter.

The weather cleared enough on Thursday for the first Peruvian air force rescue plane -- also a Boeing 737 -- to fly to the Andoas base, carrying a medical team, crash experts and police investigators.

Occidental officials
Occidental executives gather in Lima for a news conference  

Visibility may have been poor

The plane then flew the survivors south to Lima where they were rushed by ambulance to an air force hospital. The dead were due to be shuttled to the jungle city of Iquitos, where most of them lived.

"I want to beg with my whole heart for them to find my uncle, even if it's only a piece of him," said a weeping relative at Lima airport. "I want to see him. Until I see him, I can't be at peace."

Many of the bodies found tossed among wreckage strewn over a wide area of swampy jungle were badly burned, according to a local radio reporter who reached the crash site.

"There are human remains around the jungle and bits of wrecked plane over an area about 400 meters (yards) square," the reporter said.

The reporter was near Andoas by chance when the jet crashed, and made a difficult river journey over the three miles (five kilometers) to the disaster site in a hovercraft.

The cause of the accident has not been determined, but witnesses were quoted in local newspapers as saying the pilot circled the air strip and was approaching from a different direction in an effort to avoid oil storage tanks sitting on the runway.

Occidental officials have said a light rain was falling at the time of the crash, but witnesses in Andoas told reporters heavy rain made visibility poor.

emergency room
Military police officers guard the entrance to the emergency room at an air force hospital in Lima  

2nd Peruvian crash in 6 weeks

Rain and fog prevented Occidental rescue teams from reaching the site for five hours after the crash. They quickly found 12 survivors, some of them well enough to walk, but hours of searching yielded only one more survivor among the wreckage.

"At about one o'clock in the afternoon, they found a completely disoriented man walking through the jungle," Occidental official Jose Diaz said.

Diaz did not know whether investigators had been able to find the plane's flight recorder, the "black box" which might explain the cause of the accident.

The lone American aboard the plane, engineer Harold Whitehead, was not among those rescued, Occidental officials said. Whitehead worked for the Peruvian engineering company Grana y Montero, and his family lives in the Amazon river port of Iquitos.

The plane burst into flames after crashing, and witnesses told reporters by radio that the fuselage was smashed to pieces.

It was the second accident for the Peruvian air force in just over a month. A Ukrainian-built twin-engine Antonov An-32 crashed into a shanty town on March 29, killing at least 25 people and severely injuring 20 more.

Flight log 'not particularly high'

In Seattle, Boeing said the jet's log of 23,000 flights and 37,000 flight hours was "not particularly high" for a plane of that age. The air force acquired the jet just weeks ago.

Peru's air force has a contract to fly Occidental personnel three times a week into Andoas. The disaster was the first time in 20 years that Occidental -- Peru's largest oil producer -- has suffered an accident with a fixed wing aircraft in Peru.

Reuters contributed to this report.


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