MEDAN, Indonesia (AFP) - At least 116 people are feared dead after an Indonesian air force transport plane crashed Tuesday into a major city shortly after take-off and exploded in a fireball, officials said.
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.
Air force chief Agus Supriatna said the manifest showed there were 113 people on board the plane -- 12 crew and 101 passengers -- when it crashed, and he did not believe any had survived.
“No, no. No survivors, I have just returned from the site,” he told AFP in answer to a question.
So far, 49 bodies had been recovered and taken to hospital, he said.
Many passengers were likely to be family members of servicemen and women, said a spokesman for Medan airbase, where the plane took off. At least one child has so far been confirmed killed.
The local search and rescue agency also said that three people were 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 just after midday when the plane came down. “It was very scary,” said Novi, an employee of an international school who goes by one name, 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.”
Crushed by debris
Medan’s police chief described the bodies as “crushed by debris of the buildings and the fuselage”.
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 12:08 pm (0508 GMT) from the airbase and crashed in the city about two minutes later, about five kilometres (three miles) from the base, according to the military.
Shortly after take-off, the pilot had asked to return to base, Supriatna said, adding the aircraft might have suffered engine trouble.
But he added the plane was in “very good condition” and had made several stops before arriving in Medan.
It was the second time in a decade that Medan had suffered a fatal plane accident. A Mandala Airlines domestic flight crashed shortly after take-off in 2005 into a densely populated suburb, killing at least 150 including passengers, crew and people on the ground.
Medan is the biggest Indonesian city outside the main island of Java and is a major economic centre. The Indonesian air force has suffered accidents before.
At least 11 people were killed when a Fokker-27 military jet crashed into a housing complex in the capital Jakarta in June 2012.
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. Indonesia also has a poor civil aviation safety record, and has suffered many fatal crashes in the past.
An Indonesia AirAsia plane crashed in December en route from Indonesia’s Surabaya to Singapore, killing all 162 people on board.