More than 100 killed in fiery Cuban airplane crash near Havana

More than 100 people were killed after a Boeing 737-201 on a flight from Havana to Holguín crashed and exploded in a field Friday afternoon shortly after takeoff from José Martí International Airport.

In the wake of the crash, Cuba's Council of State declared two days of national mourning.

State media reported that 104 passengers — 100 of them Cuban — as well as several Mexican crew members were aboard the plane that was leased by Cubana de Aviación, the Cuban national airline, from a Mexican company. The aircraft was nearly 40 years old.

Four survivors were taken to Calixto Garcia hospital in Havana, but one, a man, later died from burns and other trauma, according to Granma, the Communist Party newspaper. The remaining three female survivors were in serious condition. Only one of them, Emiley Sánchez de la O, 39, of Holguín, was identified by Cuban media.

An official death toll hadn't been released Friday night, but it appears that the three women may be the only crash survivors. Argentina's foreign minister said two Argentines were among the dead.

Miguel Díaz-Canel, who became Cuba's president on April 19, headed to the scene after receiving word of the crash.

"The news is not very hopeful. It seems there will be a high number of victims," he said. In a Granma photo, he is seen in shirt sleeves striding through a field near the charred body of the plane.

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Cuban president Miguel Díaz-Canel at the site of the plane crash. Shortly after departing José Martí International Airport in Havana, a Boeing 737-200 crashed in a suburb of the capital city on May 18. Adalberto ROQUE AFP/Getty Images

Díaz-Canel later appeared on Cuban state television offering his condolences on behalf of the Cuban government and Communist Party to family members. He said the events surrounding the crash would be investigated by a commission and "all information will be given."

Raúl Castro, the head of Cuba's Communist Party who is recovering from a planned hernia operation, also sent his condolences to the families of the victims.

The passenger roster included four children and an infant.

As families of the passengers desperately waited for news of their loved ones, they were asked to call these Cuban numbers for information on flight DMJ 0972: +5376497233 and +5376497234.

The plane was traveling from Havana to Holguín, 416 miles east of the capital, when it went down near the airport, which is located in the Rancho Boyeros suburb of Havana. An NBC reporter in Havana said the plane fell on a government farm and that homes in the area weren't affected.

Two busloads of the survivors' families were taken to the crash scene, and Cuban authorities were working to get family members from Holguín to Havana to help identify victims. A flight was scheduled to leave Holguín at 10 p.m. with a representative from each family aboard. Some of the victims also lived in Las Tunas and Granma provinces.

Firefighters battled the blaze as billows of black smoke shot skyward, but when Díaz-Canel appeared on state television in late afternoon, he said the fire had been extinguished. The airport was closed shortly after the crash, leaving several flights from Havana to Miami on hold, but it reopened Friday afternoon.

The flight to Holguín took off shortly after noon and crashed at 12:08 p.m, according to Granma. Witnesses said the plane turned around to head back to the airport and struck electric cables before plummeting.

Rescuers arrived within 12 minutes of the crash, according to a Granma reporter.

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Nurses head toward the crash of a passenger plane carrying 104 passengers and several Mexican crew members that went down in a field shortly after taking off from Jose Marti International Airport in Havana. Ramon Espinosa AP

Shortly after the crash, ambulances, fire trucks, and cars from Cuba's Instituto de Medicina Legal could be seen speeding down Havana's central Avenue of Independence, reported 14y medio, an independent digital outlet in Cuba.

Roberto Peña Samper, president of Corporación de la Aviación Cubana, said the aircraft was the property of a Mexican company called Global Air and had been leased by Cubana de Aviación. Global Air, which was founded in 1990, provides aircraft to various flight operators.

Information provided by the Mexican government to CubaDebate, a Cuban digital news service, said the plane had been manufactured in 1979. The flight captain was identified as Jorge Luis Núñez Santos.

Although Cuban media reported there were nine crew members aboard, the Mexican government listed only five.

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto was among the world leaders who sent condolences to the Cuban government and people.

Boeing, the manufacturer of the plane, also sent condolences. "A Boeing technical team stands ready to assist as permitted under U.S. law and at the direction of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board and Cuban authorities," the company said in a statement.

Although the plane was leased, Cubana de Aviacion's aging fleet has faced safety issues in the past.

Just Thursday, the Cuban National Aviation Authority grounded Cubana de Aviación's Antonov AN-158 fleet due to technical issues. According to Airline Geeks, the airline operated up to six of the Ukrainian aircraft, which had repeated maintenance issues. As of April, only one of the planes was still in operation.

In April 2017, a Cuban military plane crashed in Artemisa province and eight people died. The plane was an AN-26.

The Associated Press reported that Cuban First Vice President Salvador Valdés Mesa met Thursday with officials from the airline to discuss improvement in Cubana's service in the face of strong criticism. Flights between Cuban cities have long been problematic.

Due to issues with internal Cuban flights, there have been instances of Cuban nationals flying to the United States and then taking a flight to the desired city in Cuba, said John S. Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.

During the Obama administration, regularly scheduled commercial flights from the United States to Cuba resumed and U.S. airlines were granted authority by the Department of Transportation to fly to several Cuban cities.

Reporter Sarah Moreno contributed to this report.
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