Cuba

What caused a Cuban airliner to fall from the sky? One theory is luggage overload

Rescue workers on the scene of the plane crash in Havana

Rescue teams work at the scene of the crash of the Cubana de Aviación plane that crashed after taking off from the José Martí airport in Havana on Friday, May 18, 2018. The plane was carrying 113 people, 104 passengers and nine crew members.
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Rescue teams work at the scene of the crash of the Cubana de Aviación plane that crashed after taking off from the José Martí airport in Havana on Friday, May 18, 2018. The plane was carrying 113 people, 104 passengers and nine crew members.

As Cubans grieved over one of the worst air crashes in the island's history, investigators hoped that the recovery of one of the black boxes from a leased Boeing 737 would begin to yield clues on what caused the 39-year-old aircraft to fall from the sky and explode in a yucca field.

The black box, which recorded voices from the cockpit, was recovered in good condition, Transport Minister Abdel Yzquierdo Rodríguez announced over the weekend. Cuban authorities are still looking for the plane's flight data recorder.

Only three of the 113 people aboard flight 0972 survived Friday's crash. Cubana de Aviación, Cuba's national airline company, had leased the plane from Global Air (Damojh), a Mexican firm.

The aging aircraft went down at 12:08 p.m., shortly after it left Havana's José Martí International Airport on a flight to Holguín, 420 miles away in eastern Cuba. Yzquierdo said the plane had arrived in Cuba less than a month ago, its certifications were in order and that the Mexican company was responsible for the plane's maintenance.

Because Cuba doesn't have pilots certified to fly Boeing aircraft, Yzquierdo said it had hired a Mexican crew. The entire crew perished in the fiery crash.



The Associated Press reported that the same plane had been barred from Guyanese airspace last year. Guyanese Civil Aviation Director Capt. Egbert Field told the AP that the crew had been allowing dangerous overloading of luggage on flights to Cuba. Guyanese authorities said that luggage had even been stowed in the plane's bathrooms.

Romilio Oms, a retired Cubana de Aviación and Aero Caribbean pilot who now lives in Miami, said it’s possible that cargo might have played a role in the Cuban crash.

Before takeoff, all planes need to be balanced according to their mix of passengers, cargo and fuel. He said that since the plane took off and seemed to immediately have problems in the air as it made its turn toward Holguín, it’s possible that poor balance could have contributed to the crash.

Witnesses told state media that one of the plane's engines appeared to be on fire and it hit electrical wires as it was going down.

Mexican civil aviation authorities arrived in Cuba Saturday to take part in the investigation and Yzquierdo said that since the plane was manufactured in the United States, the Cubans would give access to U.S. officials and experts.

In a statement, Boeing said it had a technical team "ready to assist as permitted under U.S. law and at the direction of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board and the Cuban authorities."

Orestes Fonseca Peña, who left a comment on the Cuban digital news site CubaDebate, said he hoped there would be a "profound investigation" and those found responsible would answer to the law. "This will not restore the lives of the dead," he said, "but it will prevent something like this from happening again."

Friday's crash was among the worst aviation disasters in Cuban history. The worst in terms of loss of life was the 1989 crash of a Soviet-made Ilyushin 11-62M en route to Milan. It crashed into the Rancho Boyeros neighborhood shortly after takeoff from the Havana airport, destroying 19 homes and claiming 150 lives, including 24 on the ground.

Meanwhile, on Sunday Cuba entered its second day of national mourning for the crash victims.

"We're all at home in mourning," wrote one Cuban social media commentator. "No music or laughs, only pain and tears."

The first funerals were held Sunday in Holguín. The service for Suyen Lizandra Figueredo Driggs, a teacher from the town of Gibara, and her daughter Alexa Rivas Figueredo was held at the Municipal House of Culture in Villa Blanca so there would be enough room for everyone who wanted to pay their respects, CubaDebate reported.

While the island dealt with its own tragedy, the victims of the Texas school shooting that happened the same day the plane went down were also in their thoughts.

A Cuban official said that Cuba authorities had expressed condolences to the U.S. State Department following the shooting at Santa Fe High School that left 10 dead and 10 others wounded.

El Nuevo Herald reporter Sarah Moreno contributed to this report.



Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: mwhitefield@MiamiHerald.com
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