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More than 100 dead after SAS airliner hits Cessna in Italy

Monday, October 8, 2001

Associated Press WriterMILAN, Italy (AP) -- An SAS airliner collided with a wayward small private plane on the runway of Milan's Linate airport Monday, plowed into a building and then burst into flames, killing at least 114 people.

Government officials ruled out terrorism. The Interior Ministry said the accident was most likely the result of "human error" and poor visibility from heavy morning fog.

The SAS plane, an MD 87 with 104 passengers and six crew members, hit a twin-engine Cessna, swerved off the runway and ran into a baggage handling depot, the Interior Ministry said in a statement.

It said the Cessna, a Citation II, was on the wrong runway.

Transport Minister Pietro Lunardi put the death toll at 114 with four ground workers missing. Fifty-six of the SAS victims were Italians, the rest other nationalities, he told an airport news conference.

"The cause seems for now attributable to human error," he said, refusing to say who was to blame. He said the investigation was in the hands of a magistrate.

Four of the dead were aboard the smaller Cessna aircraft, which was destroyed by the fire. The two Cessna pilots were German, and the two passengers on the eight-seater plane were Italian, said Alessandra Tripodi, a spokeswoman at the Milan Prefect's office.

"Unfortunately the toll is bound to rise," she said.

She said the Cessna had stopped in Milan while en route from Cologne, Germany to Paris.

More than 35 bodies had been pulled from the wreckage, as firefighters worked to contain the blaze, Tripodi said. Access to the fuselage and cabin of the jetliner was made difficult because the plane hit a cement beam as it plowed into the baggage storage building, causing the roof to collapse.

Rescue crews using a crane lifted the roof off but "the scene is not encouraging in terms of finding survivors," she said.

Thick smoke filled the air around the crash site, and charred pieces of the shattered airplane stuck out of the red-and-white checked building as firefighters tried to board. Fire trucks were clustered around the scene and the ground was covered with mounds of white, fire-retardant foam.

The airport was closed until at least midnight.

"I heard three or four booms and a few moments later a crash and then flames dozen of meters (yards) high," an unidentified airport worker told private TG5 television. He said he was awaiting word of his colleagues, some 20 of whom were believed to be in the building.

Two of the injured from the baggage depot were taken to Niguarda hospital, and were listed in serious condition, spokesman Savino Bonfanti said. Another airport worker was taken to San Raffaele hospital for shock, said spokesman Luca Esotti.

"It's a terrible tragedy that fills us with pain and mourning and comes at an already difficult time in the international context," said the provincial president, Roberto Formigoni.

German Interior Minister Otto Schily, who spoke to his Italian counterpart after the blaze, called the Linate crash a "tragic accident" and said terrorism had been ruled out.

The worst-ever runway incident happened in 1977, when 582 people were killed when a KLM Boeing 747, attempting to take off, crashed into a Pan Am 747 on Tenerife in the Canary Islands, said Chris Yates, of Jane's Airport Review.

SAS, or Scandinavian Airlines System, said the aircraft, Flight SK686, had been scheduled to take off at 7:35 a.m. for Copenhagen. The incident occurred at 8:10 a.m.

"SAS is doing everything possible to help passengers and to assist Italian authorities at this time," the airline said in a statement. The airline sent experts to Milan to assist in the rescue operation and investigation.

At Copenhagen's airport, about 20 relatives and friends of the passengers who had been expected to arrive were being gathered and offered the opportunity to talk with psychologists. Relatives at Linate, Milan's second airport after its main hub in Malpensa, were kept in a room away from the press and special hot-lines were set up for those seeking information.

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