Wednesday, July 18, 2007

SAO PAULO, Brazil (CNN) -- Heavy black smoke poured into the air and bright orange flames lit the night sky in Sao Paulo after a passenger plane skidded across a road and crashed into a building Tuesday. At least 200 people were killed.

A TAM Airlines Airbus 320 carrying 176 people crashed while attempting to land in heavy rain at Sao Paulo's Congonhas Airport, the airline said.

The Sao Paulo fire department said at least 200 people, including some on the ground, were dead at the scene.

There was no immediate word on survivors.

Witnesses said the plane skidded across a major road at rush hour. Reports that the plane struck a gas station could not be confirmed, but a massive fire broke out.

The plane apparently struck a building bearing the airline's logo at the small domestic airport in the heart of the city. At least 50 rescue vehicles were at the scene, firefighters said. The fire continued to burn into the night.

Paulo Barros told the Brazilian newspaper O Globo that he was getting ready to board a flight to Brasilia on another runway when the plane crashed.

"We saw the plane go straight down the runway. It didn't manage to stop and went into the avenue. It went by so fast that we thought it was taking off," Barros said.

Flight JJ3054 was coming to Sao Paulo from Porto Alegre in southern Brazil, the airline said. Watch scene after plane crashes in Sao Paulo »

The airport is notorious for having short, slippery runways, CNN's Miles O'Brien reported. The runway was recently resurfaced but the cutting of grooves to channel rainwater off the pavement had not been completed, he said.

A Brazilian court in February banned large jets at the busy airport because of safety concerns, The Associated Press reported.

But an appeals court overruled the ban, saying it would hurt business and that the safety problems did not warrant halting air traffic, according to AP.

The airline said it could not immediately confirm the extent of the damage or the number of victims. Family members of those on the plane were being given assistance, it said.

"I was surprised by a ball of fire in front of my window," Deisy Oliveira, who lives by the airport, told O Globo.

"The atmosphere is tense and nervous, because nobody really knows what happened. Since the plane hit the building and a gas station, you can't tell exactly where the explosion happened."

The airport's main runway was closed for several weeks at one point while it was repaired because of a problem with water collecting on the runway, Tom Hennigan, a reporter from The Times of London in Sao Paulo, told CNN. It was too early, however, to say whether that may have contributed to Tuesday's incident, he said.

The airport is small and in a densely populated area, he said.

"When you fly into Congonhas airport, it is like you are literally flying past people's living rooms in apartment blocks," Hennigan said. "Then you land on the runway. It is completely surrounded by the central part of Sao Paulo city. This is not an airport out on the edge of the city. This is right in the city."

According to AP, Brazil's deadliest crash before Tuesday occurred last September when a Gol Aerolinhas Inteligentes SA Boeing 737 collided with an executive jet over the Amazon rainforest, killing 154 people. The executive jet landed safely. E-mail to a friend