Taxi driver Paulo Carol felt like he had suddenly been transported to the set of a Hollywood disaster film. In front of his car, an airplane crossed six lanes of the Avenida Washington Luis, which leads to Congonhas in southern Sao Paulo, one of the two main airports for the Brazilian connurbation with its more than 18 million residents. Frightened, Carol turned off his engine and fled on foot with his two passengers.
The Airbus A-320, which was operated by the Brazilian airline TAM, skidded off the runway after touching down. It collided with a number of cars and plowed through a gas station before crashing into a TAM maintenance building and going up in flames. At least 195 people were killed in the explosion: 180 who were passengers on the Airbus jet, plus a further 15 people caught in its wake, including employees working inside the TAM building.
Luiz Santos, 36, who had been driving a Volkswagen Golf belonging to his employer, barely escaped the explosion. "The airplane was coming right at me," he said. "I could hear the sound of the engines and then it exploded." The windows of his VW were shattered and the explosion destroyed the back end of his truck, but Santos and the person travelling with him were able to escape the inferno. "I feel like I've been born again," he said.
Flight JJ 3054 took off from the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre at 5:16 p.m. and landed according to schedule at Congonhas about two hours later, but the plane apparently touched down too far down the runway.
A Series of Accidents and Mishaps
The Sao Paulo crash will likely turn out to be the biggest in Brazilian history. It will also mark the tragic pinnacle of a series of accidents, mishaps and scandals that have made flying in South America's biggest country a potentially deadly adventure.
Last September, a Gol airlines Boeing 737 collided with a private jet over the Amazon, claiming 154 lives. The investigation into the crash is still ongoing, but a number of hair-raising details have already been leaked. But that doesn't even begin to provide insight into the chaos of the Brazilian skies. Flight controllers are poorly trained, overworked and under-paid. Many barely speak English. The radar technology in the Amazon is also aging and often defective.
The country's air travel infrastructure has been unable to keep up with Brazil's fast economic growth. In recent years, Brazilian air travel has grown by 10 percent annually, but investments in training for air-traffic controllers and equipment for airports has been neglected. Most air-traffic controllers belong to the air force, which has been completely overtaxed in controlling Brazilian air traffic. Air traffic controllers responded to threats of disciplinary action after the Gol Boeing crash with slowdown strikes and sabotage. They want responsibility for air traffic control to be transferred to a civil aviation authority and they are demanding better pay. In recent months, this situation repeatedly led to a collapse of Brazilian air travel, and hours-long delays became part of the daily routine.
The decline of Brazil's former flag carrier, Varig, has exacerbated the chaos. After it declared bankruptcy, the company was purchased by competitor Gol and today it only serves a few of its former routes. Meanwhile, TAM and Gol haven't managed to grow quickly enough to handle the flood of passengers. TAM's network broke down in December under the strain of overbooking, forcing the air force to make planes available to transport holiday travellers who had been stranded at airports for hours or days.
"Relax and Have an Orgasm"
The government of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has also shown itself to be incompetent in the face of the air traffic chaos. Tourist Minister Marta Suplicy -- who used to give sex advice on a popular TV show -- recently told protesting passengers, who in some case had been waiting days for their flights, to "relax and have an orgasm" in an unfortunate double entendre. And Defense Minister Waldir Pires, an affable old gentleman who is responsible for the air force as well as civilian air traffic, has proven himself to be the wrong man for the job. He wasn't even informed of the chaos at Congonhas, Brazil's most important and busiest airport.
For years, experts have considered the Sao Paulo airport to be a safety problem. South America's busiest airport is located in the midst of a densely populated residential area, and its runway is extremely short -- so much so that some even call it the "aircraft carrier." Because of its proximity to Sao Paulo's financial district, the airport is particularly popular with businesspeople, and planes land and take off every minute. But even the most veteran frequent fliers can't help but feel queasy as planes approaching the runway practically buzz the roofs of skyscrapers and apartment buildings.
A few months back, the state-run company Infraero, responsible for operating the airport, closed Congonhas's main runway for repaving. It led to countless flight delays. The airlines pushed for work to be expedited, but that may well have led to the current disaster. Infraero opened up the runway again before workers had a chance to make grooves in the asphalt which are necessary to reduce the risk of hydroplaning on the runway during heavy rain.
Late last year, a Boeing aircraft operated by the airline BRA overshot the runway during rain, and on Monday of this week, a large propeller plane slid past the end of the runway and got stuck in the mud. According to the wire service Bloomberg, the airport had to shut 18 times because of runway flooding in the first quarter of this year alone.
On Tuesday night, Brazilian station TV Globo played recordings taken from the cockpits of several jets. The pilots were afraid to land at Congonhas and warned each other by radio of water puddles on the runway. "The runway is so slippery, it's as if someone smeared soap on it," one complained. Despite the fact that it had been raining for three days, Infraero never closed the runway.
In the end, that may have spelled doom for TAM Flight JJ 3054. Despite the heavy rains, the fire continued to burn at the site of the accident on Tuesday night, where flames reached an intense 1,000 degrees Celsius (1,832 degrees Fahrenheit). The tail fin sticks out of the warehouse like a make-shift memorial to the crash. The building is threatening to collapse and no one knows if they will be able to recover all of the victims.
President Lula, for his part, has declared three days of official mourning.