Friday, September 29, 2006

Brazilian jet missing over Amazon jungle

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil - A Brazilian jetliner with 155 people aboard was reported missing Friday over the Amazon jungle, aviation authorities said.

Initially, officials said they believed Gol airlines flight 1907 had collided with a smaller plane after leaving the jungle city of Manaus in the remote southwestern region of Para state. News reports said the plane struck a Brazilian-made Legacy, a smaller executive jet.

But authorities later said they were no longer certain the disappearance was caused by a collision with a private jet as they earlier maintained.

"During the afternoon, there was another incident with a Legacy airplane, made by Embraer," federal aviation authorities said in a statement issued early Saturday morning. "It is impossible to confirm that there is a relation between the incident which caused the (Legacy) crew to perform an emergency landing in Cachimbo and the disappearance of the Gol airplane."

Initially, authorities reported the collision was near the Serra do Cachimbo region in Para state but the Legacy managed to land at the Cachimbo base despite suffering damage. The aviation agency said the plane disappeared about 130 miles south of the city of Cachimbo, some 1,250 miles northwest of Rio de Janeiro.

The jetliner had been scheduled to make a stop in Brasilia before heading to Rio's Antonio Tom Jobim International Airport. Manaus is a major river city in the heart of the Amazon rainforest some 1,700 miles northwest of Rio.

Brazilian airport authority President Jose Carlos Pereira said five air force planes were searching for the missing Boeing 737 in a densely forested region and would continue to search through the night.

On Friday evening, Gol issued a brief statement confirming the plane's disappearance.

"GOL informs that flight 1907, that today left the Manaus airport at 15:35 (Brasilia time) this Friday, and was scheduled to arrive at the Brasilia airport at 18:12, has not had its landing confirmed until this moment. We are awaiting information from officials of the aviation authorities about the flight," the statement said.

Gol said there were 155 people aboard, 149 passengers and six crew members.

Pereira said in an interview with CBN radio that a local farmer reported seeing a large plane flying low.

According to the Globo news agency, some 70 family members and friends of the victims had been moved to a warehouse owned by Gol at the Brasilia airport to await news.

Seven passengers were scheduled to disembark in Rio, where airport officials had put those waiting to greet them in a separate room.

Sergio Misaci, 47, said his brother Lazaro, 58, was aboard the flight from Manaus and traveling to Brasilia to celebrate their mother's 80th birthday.

"I have all the hope in the world. We have to root for them and have faith in God," Misaci said, adding that he had lived in Manaus for six years and was sure they would not find the plane for at least 24 hours.

"The trees there are 50 and 60 meters (yards) high and you can't see anything," he said before returning home to rest for the evening.

The flight between Manaus and Rio is popular with foreign tourists but there was no immediate word on the nationalities of those aboard.

The Embraer Legacy 600 is a Brazilian-made executive jet that carries up to 16 passengers.

The Estado news agency quoted Col. Ramon Bueno, head of regional flight protection in Sao Paulo, as saying the Legacy was piloted by an U.S. citizen who had left from the airport in Sao Jose dos Campos, near Sao Paulo. The Legacy suffered damaged to its wing and tail.

He told the news agency a mid-air collision was "inexplicable."

"The two planes are very modern and have anti-collision systems, which sound an alarm to alert the plane to any obstacle," Bueno told Estado.

Bueno told Estado that if there were no survivors, it could be the worst air accident ever in Brazil. The worst to date occurred in 1982 when a Vasp 747 crashed in the northeastern city of Fortaleza, killing 137 people.

The accident occurred in the same region where a Varig 737-200 crashed in 1989 with 54 people aboard with 46 survivors.

It was the first major incident for Gol Linhas Aereas Intelligentes SA, an upstart Brazilian airline that took to the skies in 2001 with just six Boeing 737s in 2001, serving seven Brazilian cities.


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