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More than 100 people dead after airliner crashes in Cuba on domestic flight

Smoke can be seen rising from a wooded area near José Martí International Airport in Havana. (Video: Associated Press)

An aging airliner crashed Friday shortly after takeoff on a domestic flight in Cuba, officials and Cuban news media reported, leaving more than 100 people dead in an accident that highlighted the precarious state of the country’s commercial aircraft fleet.

The plane, a Boeing 737-200 leased by state airline Cubana de Aviación from a small Mexican carrier and operated by a Mexican crew, went down in a field within a couple of miles of Havana’s José Martí International Airport. There were conflicting accounts of the exact number of people on board; Cuban media reported that as many as 105 passengers were listed, plus up to nine foreign crew members.

The Cuban state-run news­paper Granma did not immediately provide a death toll but said that only three people survived the crash, which occurred at 12:08 p.m. Eastern time. It said the three were hospitalized in critical condition. The paper said that apart from the crew and about five foreign passengers, the people on board were Cuban citizens.

Photos from the scene after a plane crash in Cuba kills more than 100 people

Rescue crews work where a Cubana de Aviación aircraft crashed after taking off from Havana’s Jose Marti airport. The plane had 104 passengers on board, state media reported. (Adalberto Roque)

Cuban television reported that all three of the survivors were women. It said five children were among the passengers, including a child under 2 years old.

There was no immediate information on the cause of the crash.

The plane, designated as Flight 972 and bound for Holguin in the eastern part of Cuba, belonged to Mexico’s Global Air and had at least six Mexican crew members on board, an airline official told the Associated Press. The Mexican Ministry of Communications and Transportation identified the cockpit crew members as Captain Jorge Luis Núñez Santos and First Officer Miguel Ángel Arreola Ramírez, both Mexicans.

Boeing’s 737-200 first entered service in the United States in 1968 and was last manufactured 30 years ago.

The Mexican ministry confirmed Friday that the plane was 38 years old.

A history of the ill-fated aircraft indicated that it had changed hands at least 15 times, beginning its career in 1979 with Piedmont Airlines. It was later flown by airlines in Canada, Chile, Cameroon, Benin and the Caribbean, as well as Mexico. For almost five years, it was flown by the U.S. Navy.

Images posted on social media from inside the airport terminal showed gray smoke rising in the distance from the crash site minutes after the plane went down.

Cuba’s newly appointed president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, and other government officials rushed to the site, along with emergency medical workers and ambulances. Photos from the scene showed Díaz-Canel inspecting the wreckage, surrounded by firefighters, rescue workers, soldiers and officials.

The president said a commission would be formed to investigate the cause of the crash. He said there was no damage to homes in the area or casualties on the ground, and he thanked local residents for racing to help first responders.

Cuban television said the crash was about 12 miles south of Havana near the villages of Santiago de las Vegas and Boyeros.

The plane came down in a cassava field and appeared heavily damaged and burned, the AP reported. Firefighters sprayed water on its smoldering remains.

The news agency said residents of the rural area reported seeing some survivors being taken away in ambulances.

“We heard an explosion and then saw a big cloud of smoke go up,” said Gilberto Menendez, who runs a restaurant in Boyeros, the Reuters news agency reported.

Carlos Alberto Martínez, director of Havana’s Calixto García Hospital, told Reuters that four crash victims were brought there and that one subsequently died. He said the three others, all women, were in serious condition.

Family members of the passengers were brought to a private area of the airport terminal on Friday afternoon.

“My daughter is 24, my God, she’s only 24!” cried Beatriz Pantoja, whose daughter Leticia was on the plane, the AP reported.

Cubana de Aviación has taken many of its aging planes out of service in recent months because of mechanical problems.

Mercedes Vazquez, Cuba’s ­director of air transportation, told Cubadebate, a state-run news outlet, that the plane was leased from Global Air, which was founded in Mexico in 1990 and operates under the name Aerolineas Damojh, S.A. de C.V.

Cubana has been relying heavily on aircraft rented from other companies since a number of its Russian-made planes were grounded for lack of spare parts.

The spare-parts issue has grounded most of Cubana’s Antonov AN-148 aircraft, which account for six of the company’s 14 airplanes.

Two U.S. government agencies — the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board — and investigators from Boeing could assist in the investigation if invited by Cuban authorities. It is routine for U.S. investigators and the airplane manufacturer to help with investigations anywhere in the world when a U.S.-made plane crashes.

Boeing said in a statement Friday, “We are aware of news reports out of Cuba and are closely monitoring the situation.”

It was the third major aircraft accident in Cuba this decade.

Last year, a Cuban AN-26 military transport plane crashed into a hillside in the western province of Artemisa, killing all military personnel on board. In November 2010, a domestic flight, an ATR 72-212 belonging to Aero Caribbean airlines, went down in bad weather over central Cuba en route from Santiago to Havana. All 68 people on board, including 28 foreigners of various nationalities, died in that crash, Cuba’s worst in more than two decades.

Nick Miroff, Anthony Faiola and Brian Murphy contributed to this report.

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