Twenty evangelical priests have been confirmed dead along with almost 100 others after a passenger jet plummeted to the ground shortly after takeoff from Havana, Cuba on Friday. The group of clergy had spent a number of days meeting in the capital before boarding the doomed flight, which was headed for the province of Holguin. After failing in its attempt to climb to altitude, the plane crashed just outside José Martí International Airport airport in the Cuban capital.
“On that plane were 10 couples of pastors. 20 people. All of the Nazarene Church in the eastern region,” confirmed Maite Quesada, a member the Cuban Council of Churches, according to NBC News. Despite the Boeing 737 exploding into flames after the crash, miraculously, three women were pulled from the wreckage alive – they are currently in critical condition. In total, some 110 people perished in the tragic accident.
One of the survivors has been named as Emiley Sánchez de la O, 39, of Holguín, Cuba. Her injuries are severe; according to CNN, she is currently being treated for serious burns, a broken leg and a traumatic brain injury. She had reportedly been placed on a ventilator due to the life-threatening nature of her condition. A relative of one of the survivors said: “She is alive but very burnt and swollen.”
“My daughter is a fighter, she’s strong, she’ll save herself,” said Amparo Font, the mother of 23-year-old survivor Gretel Landrove, according to Reuters.
Jose Luis, who works at a supermarket near the airport, said he witnessed the plane climbing into the air before it banked and started plunging rapidly to the ground. “I saw it taking off. All of a sudden, it made a turn, and went down. We were all amazed,” he said, as reported by Sky News.
“The plane was revving its engines to take off but it couldn’t,” another witness, Orestes Bentancour, told CNN. “Luckily it didn’t land on anyone’s house.”
Yasniel Diaz, a 21-year-old musician, explained how the pilot appeared to attempt an emergency landing but was unable to complete the maneuver.
“The explosion shook everything,” he said. “I started running. I was so afraid.”
“The plane was on fire, it flipped and then nosedived,” said farmer Marino Perez Alvaredo.
The plane was built in 1979 and leased to the national carrier Cubana de Aviacion by a Mexican charter company, Damojh airlines. The Mexican firm has a history of safety violations, having been the subject of two serious complaints about its crew’s performance over the past ten years.
One pilot who used to work for Damojh told Mexican newspaper Milenio that he had complained about the lack of adequate 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, according to the BBC.
Transportation Minister Adel Yzquierdo confirmed that 110 people were killed in the accident and insisted that a full a thorough investigation would take place. “We have the black box in our hands, in good condition,” he said, according to Reuters.
Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel visited the crash site on Friday. “In addition to lament what occurred and show solidarity to the families,” he said, “the events will be investigated and all the information will be shared.”
Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness was one of the first world leaders to respond to the accident, tweeting out his condolences and calling people to pray.
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to our Caribbean neighbors in Cuba after a Boeing 737 passenger jet crashed this afternoon at Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport in Cuba,” he wrote. “We pray for the safety of the passengers and flight crew.”
The crash was the worst aviation disaster in Cuba since a Soviet-built Ilyushin-62M passenger plane crashed near Havana in 1989, killing all 126 people on board and an additional 14 on the ground.
“For the love of god, I never thought I would see this,” said Caridad Miranda, whose sister and niece both died in the crash.
“They should have checked that plane well.”
Pray for the family of the victims as well as for the speedy recovery of the survivors.