Spotlight fixes on leased aircraft as Cuba investigates deadliest plane disaster in years
Havana — Cuban authorities said the fiery crash of an ageing Boeing passenger jet on Friday shortly after takeoff from Havana had killed 110 of the 113 on board, making it the Caribbean island’s deadliest air disaster in nearly 30 yearns.
Flags flew at half-mast in Cuba on Saturday and Sunday while authorities worked to recover evidence from the crash site and to identify the crash victims. One black box was retrieved, officials said.
Allegations of previous safety complaints against Damojh, the Mexican company that leased the nearly 40-year-old Boeing 737 to national carrier Cubana, also began to surface.
Damojh declined to comment, while Mexico’s Directorate General of Civil Aeronautics said a new audit would be undertaken to ensure it was still "fulfilling norms".
Meanwhile, Cuban authorities told reporters on Saturday at Havana airport that of the passengers killed on the domestic flight to the eastern city of Holguin, 99 were Cuban, two Argentines, one Mexican and two were Sahrawi residents in Cuba. Six Mexican crew members were also killed.
Three Cubans survived but are in critical condition, said the head of the hospital.
"My daughter is a fighter, she’s strong, she’ll save herself," said Amparo Font, the mother of survivor Gretel Landrove, 23.
President Miguel Diaz-Canel in the first big test of his presidency after succeeding Raul Castro in April, on Saturday visited the mortuary and crash site.
Witnesses to the crash said one of the engines appeared to have caught fire. "The plane was on fire, it flipped and then nosedived," said farmer Marino Perez Alvaredo.
Cubana leased the jet less than a month ago, transport minister Adel Yzquierdo said. The national carrier was struggling to meet demand for flights and was serving many domestic routes by bus instead.
Cuba often resorts to leasing due to the decades-old US trade embargo, which makes it difficult to acquire newer aircraft, Yzquierdo said. Damojh operates three planes.
Ovidio Martinez Lopez, a retired Cubana pilot, in a widely shared post on Facebook, wrote that Cuban airlines had leased planes from Damojh in 2010 and 2011, but one of its aircraft dropped off the radar over the city of Santa Clara. The captain and co-pilot were suspended for "problems and serious lack of technical knowledge", and the aviation authority recommended that Cubana cuts ties.
Separately, a pilot who used to work for Damojh was quoted on Saturday by Mexican newspaper Milenio criticising the company for inadequate maintenance of planes.
"I experienced several incidents at this company, like engine failure or the electrical system went when we took off from Mexico on one occasion," Marco Aurelio Hernandez was quoted as saying.