Rescuers yesterday pulled charred bodies from the burned-out wreckage of Brazil's deadliest air disaster, amid angry accusations that airport safety concerns had been ignored.
All 186 passengers and crew aboard the Airbus 320 were believed to have died in Tuesday's crash at Sao Paulo's Congonhas airport, along with a number of people on the ground.
The Tam Airlines flight had careened off the slick runway upon landing in driving rain, skidded across a crowded avenue and slammed into a warehouse where it exploded in a fireball.
It was "a tragedy waiting to happen," said Cezar Britto, president of The Order of Lawyers of Brazil, echoing opposition and national media criticism of precarious conditions at the airport.
"What exploded in Congonhas was not just the TAM airbus and almost 200 victims, but the credibility of the Brazilian aviation system," Britto said.
Congonhas is notorious for a runway some officials consider too short and which pilots say becomes slick when wet.
"The runway was as slippery as soap," an unnamed pilot told the O Globo daily, adding that authorities should not have allowed the plane to land in such conditions.
By the early morning hours of Wednesday, rescuers said they had pulled 181 bodies from the twisted metal of the plane and surrounding warehouse rubble. Three of the bodies were found inside the Tam Express building that was struck by the plane.
One of the aircraft's black boxes was recovered.
Five people were still listed as missing and eleven people were in hospital with injuries, four of them in a critical state, the rescuers said.
"There is no sign of survivors," TAM President Marco Antonio Bologna said at a news conference.
There have been a number of incidents of planes skidding off the tarmac at the airport, including one the day before Tuesday's crash.
The main runway had been resurfaced last month, but more work was scheduled for September to build grooves into the surface to allow for better water drainage.
"Control tower operators had warned the runway should be closed because it didn't have `grooving,' but no one in the government wanted to hear about it," said Sergio Olivera, who heads the Federation of Air Controllers.
The Justice Ministry said it had ordered an investigation to establish whether the runway met technical and legal security standards.
A top Brazilian aviation official on Wednesday denied that a short, slippery runway was to blame for the crash.
Armando Schneider Filho, the director of engineering for the nation's airport authority, Infraero, said that the runway at Congonhas airport meets international safety standards.
"I can confirm that there was no possibility of skidding on this runway," Schneider told a news conference. "Twenty minutes before the accident, Infraero performed a visual inspection of the runway and detected no problems. It was wet, but there was no accumulation of water."
Pilots have long likened Congonhas' 1,939m runway to landing on an aircraft carrier -- if they don't touch down within the tarmac's first 300m, they're warned to pull up and circle around for another try. The ungrooved runway becomes even more treacherous when slick with rain.
Two other planes skidded off the same runway on Monday. And on March 22, a Boeing 737-400 overshot it in a heavy rain, coming to rest just shy of a steep drop-off to an adjacent highway.
Jorge Kersul Filho, head of the Air Force's Center for Investigation and Prevention of Air Accidents, said the plane's flight recorders will be sent to the US for analysis on Monday and it could take as long as 10 months before the accident's cause could be determined.
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