Peruvian plane crashes; 70 believed dead

ANCON, Peru (AP) — A Peruvian plane slammed into the frigid Pacific Ocean on Wednesday after its navigation system failed, leaving the pilot lost amid the dense early-morning mist. All 70 passengers and crew were believed killed.
Rescue workers searched for possible survivors of Aeroperu Flight 603, which crashed shortly after its takeoff from Lima, the Peruvian capital, to Santiago, the Chilean capital. But fog covered the rough seas throughout the day, hampering rescue operations.
The plane was carrying 61 passengers, including four Americans, and nine crew members, the airline said. Airport officials said the jetliner was only four years old.
Searchers found parts of the Boeing 757’s fuselage about 40 miles off shore, west of Ancon, said Adm. Jaime Monge, head of navy rescue operations. Ancon is 30 miles north of Lima.
Seven bodies were recovered by midafternoon, but there was no sign of survivors.
The Americans aboard were Galen Canutsen, Samsina Niis Lindeen, Dennis Trial and Kenneth Vaisman Lichtman, the airline said. No hometowns were given.
Five minutes after the 12:42 a.m. takeoff, the pilot reported equipment problems. Erick Schreiber reported that the plane’s navigational equipment was not responding and that he had no idea where he was.
“I don’t have any instruments,” he said, according to Transportation Minister Elsa Carrera, who heard a tape of his conversation with the control tower in Lima.
“What’s happening? What altitude am I at? Why is my ground crash alarm on? Am I over land or sea?”
“You’re over sea,” the tower reported.
Schreiber calmly asked for a plane to guide him back to the airport. Just before 1:10 a.m., Schreiber advised the tower to prepare for a rescue.
Then the tower lost contact with the aircraft.
Carrera said Schreiber never lost his composure during his 28-minute conversation with the tower.
“The pilot’s calmness, his serenity was incredible,” she said.
A reporter with Lima’s Radioprogramas radio station flying in an air force search plane described seeing pieces of seats and other debris from the jet floating on the fuel-slicked ocean surface. He said the debris was scattered over a one-mile radius.
As rescuers searched through the thick fog, anxious family members and friends awaited word. Some were ushered into a private room by Aeroperu employees as they arrived at the Lima airport.
“We’re just hoping they’re still alive. We’re praying they’re still alive,” said a man who said he had relatives on the plane. Police led him away from reporters before he could identify himself.
Only 11 of the passengers were Peruvians. Of the remaining victims, there were 30 Chileans, two British, two Italians, a New Zealander, a Spaniard and 10 people from other Latin American countries.
The search for survivors was centered on a 50-mile stretch of the Peruvian coast in an area reaching 50 miles off shore, navy Capt. Gonzalo Jaurigui said.
Before dawn, officials lined up ambulances, fire trucks, gasoline-powered generators and reflectors on the dark beach so that possible survivors would have bright lights to swim toward.
But they would have difficulty staying alive for long in the cold waters of the Humboldt current that flows up the South American coast from Antarctica.
Apilio Arande, head of navy security in the Lima port of Callao, said the search for bodies could take days.
Aeroperu Flight 603 originated in Miami and, though the flight number remained the same, the plane was changed in Lima, said Raul Chiappo, Miami operations manager for Aeroperu.
Chiappo said the airline had received no bomb or other threats.
The crash was the second of a commercial jet in Peru this year. In February, 123 people were killed when a Faucett Airlines Boeing 737 crashed into a mountain in southern Peru. That accident was blamed on pilot error.
Aeroperu, the former state-owned airline, was bought by Aerovias de Mexico three years ago. Soon after the privatization, the company bought the jet that crashed. The plane was a year old at the time.
Aeroperu’s operations continue to be based in Lima.