MEDAN, Indonesia (AFP, REUTERS) - The death toll from the crash of an Indonesian air force transport plane in the city of Medan has risen to 142, police said on Wednesday, as witnesses described people fleeing the disaster zone covered in blood with their clothes alight.
It is unclear how many people died on the ground, but a steady stream of bodies has been arriving at a Medan hospital as rescuers pull them from the disaster scene, and police said Wednesday that the total death toll now stood at 142.
The plane crashed and exploded in a ball of flames in a residential area of the western city on Tuesday, heavily damaging buildings and reducing cars to flaming wrecks.
The air force revised up the number of people on board the plane to 122, including 12 crew. Previously they said there were 113 people on the aircraft.
Rescuers were using heavy machinery to clear mountains of debris from the crash site on Wednesday in the hunt for more bodies.
The plane crashed into a newly built residential area in the city of two million people, hitting a massage parlour and a hotel. Search and rescue officials previously confirmed at least three people on the ground had died.
Buildings were left in ruins and cars reduced to flaming wrecks when the Hercules C-130 came down.
Air force chief Agus Supriatna earlier said he did not believe any had survived. “No, no. No survivors, I have just returned from the site,” he told AFP in answer to a question.
Many passengers were likely to be family members of servicemen and women, said a spokesman for Medan airbase, where the plane took off.
At least one child has so far been confirmed killed.
The local search and rescue agency also said that three people were killed on the ground when the 51-year-old plane went down near a newly built residential area, hitting a massage parlour and a small hotel.
A rescue operation swung into action, with ambulances ferrying bodies from the site, and crowds of anxious residents gathering around a police cordon to view the smouldering wreckage.
Residents of Medan described the terrifying moment just after midday when the plane came down. “It was very scary,” said Novi, an employee of an international school who goes by one name, describing how she heard the plane and saw it flying very low before the crash.
Another local resident Januar, 26, said the aircraft appeared to be in trouble just before the accident. “I saw the plane from the direction of the airport and it was tilting already, then I saw smoke billowing.”
New witness accounts emerged of terrifying scenes, with one man describing how the plane flew low and then smashed into a building, producing “flames as high as four storeys”.
“Everyone panicked and screamed,” Mr Tumpak Naibaho, a 27-year-old tyre repairman, told AFP, adding there were hundreds of people in the area when the crash happened around midday.
“I thought it was a terrorist attack or something... I saw one man whose clothes were on fire, staggering out of the debris. His face was covered in blood, dust and ash.” “I had never felt so scared in my life, I thought I was going to die,” he added.
‘Crushed by debris’
Medan’s police chief described the bodies as “crushed by debris of the buildings and the fuselage”.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo expressed sorrow at the accident, tweeting: “May the families be given patience and strength... May we remain protected from disaster.”
The plane took off at 12.08 pm from the airbase and crashed in the city about two minutes later, about 5km from the base, according to the military.
Shortly after take-off, the pilot had asked to return to base, Supriatna said, adding the aircraft might have suffered engine trouble.
But he added the plane was in “very good condition” and had made several stops before arriving in Medan.
It was the second time in a decade that Medan had suffered a fatal plane accident.
A Mandala Airlines domestic flight crashed shortly after take-off in 2005 into a densely populated suburb, killing at least 150 including passengers, crew and people on the ground.
Medan is the biggest Indonesian city outside the main island of Java and is a major economic centre.
The Indonesian air force has suffered accidents before.
At least 11 people were killed when a Fokker-27 military jet crashed into a housing complex in the capital Jakarta in June 2012.
In April an F-16 fighter jet caught fire as it was about to take off from an airbase in Jakarta, prompting the pilot to jump to safety as flames and thick smoke engulfed the plane.
The pilot escaped with minor injuries from the jet, which had been due to provide security at a summit of Asian and African leaders in Indonesia.
The Indonesian air force has now lost four C-130s, reducing its transport reach in an archipelagic country that stretches more than 5,000 km from its western to eastern tips.
Air force spokesman Dwi Badarmanto said it was unclear what caused the crash and, until it was, eight other C-130Bs would be grounded.
Indonesia also has a poor civil aviation safety record, and has suffered many fatal crashes in the past.
An Indonesia AirAsia plane crashed in December en route from Indonesia’s Surabaya to Singapore, killing all 162 people on board.
“It’s too early to say what caused today’s disaster, but it will again raise concerns about air safety in Indonesia, especially since it comes just half a year after the crash of QZ8501,” said Greg Waldron, Asia Managing Editor at Flightglobal, an aviation industry data and news service.