HAVANA (AP) — A Cuban airliner with 113 people on board plummeted into a yuca field just after takeoff from Havana’s international airport on Friday. There was no immediate word on casualties, though residents told The Associated Press they saw at least some survivors being taken away in ambulances.
A military officer who declined to provide his name said that there were three survivors in critical condition from the Cubana airlines flight, but other officials would not confirm that figure.
Firefighters rushed to extinguish flames engulfing the Boeing 737, which was meant to be on a short jaunt to the eastern Cuban city of Holguin when it went down just after takeoff from Jose Marti International Airport.
Government officials including President Miguel Diaz-Canel rushed to the crash site, along with a large number of emergency medical workers.
Relatives of passengers believed to be on the flight also converged on the crash site, among them a man who said that his wife and niece had been aboard. He was taken to an airline terminal where relatives were being asked to gather. Reports said that 104 passengers and nine crew members were on board.
The plane was rented by Cubana, which has taken many of its aging planes out of service in recent months due to mechanical problems. Cuba’s first vice president, Salvador Valdes Mesa, met Thursday with Cubana officials to discuss improvements in its heavily criticized service. The airline is notorious among Cubans for its frequent delays and cancellations, which Cubana blames on a lack of parts and airplanes due to the U.S. trade embargo on the island.
The crash Friday was Cuba’s third major accident since 2010.
Last year, a Cuban military plane crashed into a hillside in the western province of Artemisa, killing eight soldiers on board. In November 2010, an AeroCaribbean flight from Santiago to Havana went down in bad weather as it flew over central Cuba, killing all 68 people, including 28 foreigners, in what was Cuba’s worst air disaster in more than two decades.
The last Cubana accident was on Sept. 4, 1989, when a chartered plane flying from Havana to Milan, Italy, went down shortly after takeoff, killing all 126 people on board, as well as at least two dozen on the ground.
Cubana’s director general, Capt. Hermes Hernandez Dumas, told state media last month that Cubana’s domestic flights had carried 11,700 more passengers than planned between January and April 2018. It said that 64 percent of flights had taken off on time, up from 59 percent the previous year.
“Among the difficulties created by the U.S. trade embargo is our inability to acquire latest-generation aircraft with technology capable of guaranteeing the stability of aerial operations,” Hernandez said. “Another factor is obtaining parts for Cubana’s aircraft.”