Page last updated at 21:01 GMT, Thursday, 21 August 2008 22:01 UK

Shock and anger after Madrid crash

Suspicions are rife in Madrid about what caused a Spainair plane crash at the capital's Barajas airport, in which 153 people died, writes Steve Kingstone.

Wreckage of the Spanair MD82, 21 August 2008 [Pic: EFE]
Examination of the wreckage began the morning after the crash

All too often in big-city air disasters the death toll and devastation are worsened by the urban environment.

In the New York borough of Queens in November 2001 and at Sao Paulo's Congonhas airport in July 2007, planes came down in heavily built-up areas - with awful consequences.

But surveying the scene in the aftermath of Wednesday's fatal crash, what struck me was the vast expanse of nothingness which surrounds Madrid's uber-stylish Terminal Four.

The dusty yellow grasslands of Spain's central plateau have a timeless, untouched quality to them. As night fell on Wednesday, the stillness was punctuated only by the sound of crickets.

Tragically, the bucolic surroundings appear to have added to the death toll, when the bone-dry field, in which flight JK 5022 ended so abruptly, quickly ignited.

'Like war'

The flames blocked the exit route of potential survivors, and the efforts of rescuers to reach the wreckage. Those who did survive owed their escape to being thrown from the plane into a stream, thereby avoiding severe burns.

Relatives  leave after a memorial mass for victims of the crash in Madrid
Fateful coincidence, or criminal negligence?
El Mundo's editorial

"We are human beings, and we're never truly prepared for something like this," one medic told El Mundo newspaper.

"It's like a war, a total disaster."

In fact, the ready reference point for many here is a recent attack scenario - the Madrid train bombings in March 2004, in which Islamist militants claimed 191 lives.

Although this time there is no suggestion of foul play, commentators have likened the emergency drill and the sense of collective pain to this city's darkest hour.

A sombre symbol of both disasters is the vast Ifema conference centre on the outskirts of Madrid, which is once again being used as a makeshift mortuary.

In these rather soulless surroundings, victims' relatives are being asked to identify their loved ones.

Wherever a positive identification is confirmed, the body is released by the authorities; but many of the anguished relatives will have to wait for fingerprint or DNA tests to confirm the worst.

Culprit emerging

Thursday's headline in the ABC newspaper read: "Pain And Death Return, Four Years On".

And, perhaps mindful of the parallel, even news-hungry journalists at Ifema displayed a marked reluctance to approach relatives of the dead - many of whom were visibly distraught.

But in stark contrast to the rival theories about who was responsible for the 2004 bombings, this time, a single would-be culprit is emerging - at least in the eyes of the Spanish media.

Spanair and its business troubles are being put under the microscope - from the $81m losses in the first six months of 2008, to the axing of routes, and the proposal to cut up to 1,200 jobs.

Just hours before the crash, Spanair representatives of the pilots' union, Sepla, had issued a statement, denouncing "organisation chaos" at Spain's second biggest carrier.

Threatening strike action, the pilots alleged that company bosses were forcing cockpit and maintenance staff to work abusively long hours, in order to compensate for "endemic problems" of organisation and structure.

Those claims are denied by Spanair executives, together with the suggestion that economic woes were a direct cause of Wednesday's crash.

But an editorial in El Mundo sums up the sense of outrage and the desire to apportion blame.

"Fateful coincidence, or criminal negligence?" it asks, hinting that botched belt-tightening had compromised safety.

Other reports have focused on the fact that the crew of the doomed aircraft had earlier identified the malfunctioning of a temperature gauge.

Suspicions are rife. And in the emotional aftermath of another Madrid emergency, such heated commentary will no doubt hold sway until accident investigators offer definitive answers.

Map and satellite image of Madrid airport, plus MD82 graphic
Passengers 150-170
Cruise speed 504mph (811km/h)
Length 45.1m (148ft)
Height 9m (29.5ft)
Wing-span 32.8m (107.6ft)
Maximum range 2,052 nautical miles (3,798km)

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Air disasters timeline
21 Aug 08 |  Special Reports

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