EDAN, Indonesia — Rescuers with heavy machinery searched a shattered residential neighbourhood Tuesday for any survivors from an Indonesian air force transport plane that crashed shortly after takeoff and killed more than 70 people.
The C-130 Hercules, carrying military personnel and their families, went down in Indonesia’s third-largest city of Medan, striking a building. Witness accounts suggested the plane suffered an engine fire before crashing.
Air force spokesman Rear Marshal Dwi Badarmanto said 74 bodies were recovered. About 30 of the dead were identified and included air force personnel and relatives, he added.
Air force officials said more than 100 people may have been on the C-130, but there was little hope of finding survivors. It is unclear how many people on the ground were killed.
The crash of the transport plane, which had been in service since 1964, occurred only two minutes after it took off from Soewondo air force base around midday.
The pilot told the control tower that he needed to turn back because of engine trouble, said air force chief Air Marshal Agus Supriatna.
“The plane crashed while it was turning right to return to the airport,” he said.
Many passengers were relatives of military personnel. Hitching rides on military planes to reach remote destinations is common in Indonesia, a sprawling archipelago that spans three time zones.
Indonesia has a patchy civil aviation safety record and its cash-strapped air force has also suffered a series of accidents. 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. There have been five fatal crashes involving air force planes since 2008, according to the Aviation Safety Network, which tracks aviation disasters.
Fahmi Sembiring of Medan said he saw the grey Hercules flying very low as he was driving.
“Flames and black smoke were coming from the plane in the air,” he said.
Sembiring said he stopped not far from the crash site and saw several people rescued by police, security guards and bystanders.
Another man, Janson Halomoan Sinagam, said several of his relatives were on the plane.
“We just want to know their fate,” he told MetroTV, weeping. “But we have not yet received any information from the hospital.”
The plane’s manifest showed there were 50 people on the flight from Medan in Sumatra to the remote Natuna island chain, according to North Sumatra Police Chief Eko Hadi Sutedjo, but the actual number was higher.
Supriatna said there were more than 100 passengers and a crew of 12 on the plane before it reached Medan. It had travelled from the capital, Jakarta, and stopped at two locations before arriving in Medan, a city of 3.4 million.
It was the second time in 10 years that an airplane has crashed into a Medan neighbourhood. In September 2005, a Mandala Airlines Boeing 737 crashed into a crowded residential community shortly after takeoff from Medan’s Polonia airport, killing 143 people including 30 on the ground.
On Twitter, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo said he and his family extend “heartfelt condolences” to the families of victims.
The government will evaluate the age of air force planes and other important military equipment, he said.
Aviation analyst Gerry Soejatman said numerous nonfatal accidents involving air force planes this year are worrying and suggest there could be shortfalls in areas such as training.
Previously, the air force’s safety record was marred by low flight hours and parts shortages that stemmed from a U.S. ban on defence sales to Indonesia, but that no longer applies with the lifting of those restrictions more than five years ago.
Medan is the third most populous city in Indonesia after Jakarta and Surabaya.