Boeing 737 crashes upon takeoff from Havana airport

HAVANA -- A Cuban-operated airliner with at least 110 people aboard crashed and burned in a cassava field just after takeoff from the Havana airport Friday. Cuban media reported three survivors.

The Boeing 737 went down just after noon a short distance from the end of the runway at Jose Marti International Airport while on a short-hop flight to the eastern city of Holguin. Firefighters rushed to extinguish the flames that engulfed the jet.

"There is a high number of people who appear to have died," Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel said from the scene. "Things have been organized, the fire has been put out, and the remains are being identified."

Relatives of those aboard were ushered into a private area at the terminal to await word on their loved ones.

"My daughter is 24, my God, she's only 24!" cried Beatriz Pantoja, whose daughter Leticia was on the plane.

The cause of the disaster was under investigation. State TV said the jet veered sharply to the right after takeoff.

Authorities said there were 104 passengers and nine crew members on the flight, operated by Cubana, the Cuban state airline. An employee who answered the phone at the Mexico City office of the charter business Aerolinea Global Air said the plane belonged to the company and had a six-person Mexican crew.

Cubana is notorious for delays and cancellations and has taken many of its planes out of service because of maintenance problems in recent months, prompting it to hire charter aircraft from other companies.

Four crash survivors were taken to a Havana hospital, and three remained alive as of mid-afternoon, hospital director Martinez Blanco told Cuban state TV.

State media reports stopped short of saying the rest were dead.

On Thursday, Cuban First Vice President Salvador Valdes Mesa met with Cubana officials to discuss improvements to its service. The airline blames its spotty record on a lack of parts and airplanes because of the U.S. trade embargo against the communist island.

It was Cuba's third major aviation accident since 2010.

Last year a Cuban military plane crashed into a hillside in the western province of Artemisa, killing eight soldiers. In 2010, an AeroCaribbean flight from Santiago to Havana went down in bad weather, killing all 68 people aboard, including 28 foreigners, in what was the country's worst air disaster in more than two decades.

The last deadly accident involving a Cubana-operated plane was in 1989, when a charter flight from Havana to Milan, Italy, crashed shortly after takeoff, killing all 126 people on board and at least two dozen on the ground.

Cubana's director general, Capt. Hermes Hernandez Dumas, told state media last month that the airline's domestic flights had carried 11,700 more passengers than planned between January and April.

It said 64 percent of flights took off on time, up from 59 percent the previous year.

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