Florida relatives head to Cuba to help identify victims of air crash

Three women shed tears after the identification of the victims of the Havana airplane crash at the Institute for Forensic Medicine on May 19, 2018, in Havana.
Three women shed tears after the identification of the victims of the Havana airplane crash at the Institute for Forensic Medicine on May 19, 2018, in Havana. DPA/Zuma Press/TNS

More than a dozen Florida residents traveled to Cuba over the weekend to help in the identification of family members who lost their lives in the fiery crash of a leased Boeing 737 that went down shortly after takeoff from the Havana airport.

Among them was Mayle Velázquez, a Cuban-American lawyer who lives in Tampa. She had dreamed of bringing her mother to the United States and had already submitted an application for family reunification. But her mother, Maida Francisca Abdala Almoza, 60, was among the people who lost their lives in the Friday crash.

Meanwhile, on Monday, Cuban state media said Grettel Landrovell Font of Havana — a 23-year-old who initially survived the crash — had died, raising the death toll to 111.

Gulfstream Air Charter picked up the tab for the Floridians' flights and also worked with the Cuban Embassy in Washington to get special travel permission for those who didn't have their passports updated, said Carlos Armando Cabrera, a Gulfstream spokesman.

Other immediate family members of the crash victims can call Gulfstream at 305-428-2828 for help, Cabrera said.

Only two people have survived the crash of flight 0972, which plummeted from the sky and burst into flames in a field just minutes after it took off from José Martí International Airport. It was en route to Holguín in eastern Cuba. The cause of the crash is under investigation.

While the investigation is ongoing, Mexico’s civil aviation authority has temporarily suspended operations of Global Air (Damojh), the Mexican company that leased the Boeing to Cubana de Aviación, Cuba's national airline company, Reuters reported.

As of noon Monday, Cuba's Institute of Forensic Medicine said that 36 crash victims, including the five children who had been on the flight, had been identified and their remains turned over to their families.

"The children were a priority," said Dr. Sergio Rabell, who heads the Institute of Forensic Medicine. He said they were identified within the first 12 hours.

Rabell said investigators, who are working 24 hours a day, hope to complete the process of identifying the bodies within a month.

Cuba Plane Crash-GDQDQ1DL5.1.jpg
Mairy Charchabal holds a picture of her son Daniel Terrero Charchabal, 22, who was killed in Cuba's worst aviation disaster, at the morgue where she waits for the identification of the bodies in Havana, Cuba on, Sunday. Officials say 110 people died when a charter passenger jet hired by Cuba's state-run airline, Cubana de Aviacion, crashed Friday. Desmond Boylan AP

Meanwhile, the two remaining survivors of the crash are in extremely critical condition at Calixto García Hospital in Havana.

A man also was pulled alive from the wreckage of the plane but he died soon after arriving at the hospital.

Calixto García Director Carlos Alberto Martínez said at a Monday news conference that the women were at high risk of developing complications but said it was a good sign that they had survived for 72 hours after the crash.

The survivors are Mailen Díaz, 19, of Holguín, and Emiley Sánchez, 39, of Holguin. The women, who suffered burns, are intubated and on ventilators, said Martínez.

In addition to a six-member Mexican crew, the dead included 100 Cubans, two passengers from the disputed territory of Western Sahara, two Argentinians and a Mexican.

Rabell said some of the Mexicans' family members had arrived in Havana and submitted DNA samples that should allow positive identifications of the crew soon.

The State Department said it wasn't aware of any U.S. citizens aboard the flight. But it is possible there were Cuban residents of the United States.

Houston Astros first baseman Yulieski Gurriel, who came to the United States from Cuba in 2016, said he was aware of a Cuban family from Houston on a visit to the island who were among the victims.

"It is my intention to pay the passage for their relatives' trip to Cuba," he said on Twitter. "My heart and soul are with the families of all the victims in this difficult moment."

Follow Mimi Whitefield and Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @HeraldMimi and @ngameztorres
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