MEDAN, INDONESIA // At least 116 people are feared dead after an Indonesian air force plane crashed into a major city on Tuesday just two minutes after take-off and exploded in a fireball.
Buildings were left in ruins and cars reduced to flaming wrecks when the Hercules C-130 came down in a residential area of Medan, a city of two million on the island of Sumatra.
The manifest showed there were 113 people on board the transport plane – 12 crew and 101 passengers – when it crashed, Air force chief Agus Supriatna said. There were no survivors.
So far, 49 bodies had been recovered and taken to hospital. At least one child has so far been confirmed killed.
Many passengers were likely to be family members of servicemen and women, said a spokesman for Medan airbase, where the plane took off. Hitching rides on military planes to reach remote destinations is common in Indonesia, a sprawling archipelago that spans three time zones.
Three people were also killed on the ground when the 51-year-old plane went down near a newly built residential area, hitting a massage parlour and a small hotel.
A rescue operation swung into action, with ambulances ferrying bodies from the site, and crowds of anxious residents gathering around a police cordon to view the smouldering wreckage.
Residents of Medan described the terrifying moment when the plane came down, just after midday.
“It was very scary,” said Novi, an employee of an international school, describing how she heard the plane and saw it flying very low before the crash.
Another local resident Januar, 26, said the aircraft appeared to be in trouble just before the accident.
“I saw the plane from the direction of the airport and it was tilting already, then I saw smoke billowing.”
Medan’s police chief described the bodies as “crushed by debris of the buildings and the fuselage”.
Janson Halomoan Sinagam, said several of his relatives were on the plane when it left Medan headed for the remote Natuna island chain.
“We just want to know their fate,” he told MetroTV, weeping. “But we have not yet received any information from the hospital.”
Indonesian president Joko Widodo expressed sorrow at the accident, tweeting: “May the families be given patience and strength ... May we remain protected from disaster.”
The plane took off at 12.08pm from the airbase and crashed in the city about two minutes later, about five kilometres from the base.
Shortly after take-off, the pilot had asked to return to base, Mr Supriatna said, adding the aircraft might have suffered engine trouble.
But he said that the plane was in “very good condition” and had made several stops before arriving in Medan.
The air force temporarily grounded its remaining eight Hercules C-130 aircraft following the crash.
Medan is the biggest Indonesian city outside the main island of Java and is a major economic centre.
Tuesday’s crash was the second time in a decade that the city had suffered a fatal plane accident. In 2005, a Mandala Airlines domestic flight crashed shortly after take-off into a densely populated suburb, killing at least 150 including passengers, crew and people on the ground.
Indonesia has a patchy aviation safety record, and between 2007 and 2009, the European Union barred Indonesian airlines from flying to Europe because of safety concerns. The country’s most recent civilian airline disaster was in December, when an AirAsia jet with 162 people on board crashed into the Java Sea en route from Surabaya to Singapore.
Since 2008, there have been five fatal crashes involving air force planes, according to the Aviation Safety Network, which tracks aviation disasters.
At least 11 people were killed when a Fokker-27 military jet crashed into a housing complex in the capital Jakarta in June 2012.
And in April, an F-16 fighter jet caught fire as it was about to take off from an airbase in Jakarta, prompting the pilot to jump to safety as flames and thick smoke engulfed the plane.
The pilot escaped with minor injuries from the jet, which had been due to provide security at a summit of Asian and African leaders in Indonesia.
* Agence France-Presse with additional reporting by Reuters and Assocoiated Press