Rescuers in Brazil clear way to jet wreckage


By Raymond Colitt

BRASILIA, Brazil (Reuters) - Rescuers on Sunday cleared the thick jungle around the wreckage of a Brazilian passenger plane that crashed in the Amazon with 155 people on board, opening the way for teams to begin retrieving bodies. 

"The chances of finding survivors are increasingly slim," Milton Zuanazzi, head of the aviation regulator ANAC, said of what is feared to be Brazil's worst aviation disaster. 

Rescue workers were in the area but still preparing better access through the jungle to site where the brand-new Boeing belonging to the low-cost airline Gol crashed on Friday. 

"It is an extremely difficult area for a rescue operation. They've reached parts, they haven't been able to evaluate the entire area," Zuanazzi told a news conference. 

A small group of soldiers had rappelled down from helicopters into the crash area on Saturday and set to work cutting down trees to clear a landing spot for helicopters. 

About 200 soldiers, firemen, and local volunteers were cutting through thick vegetation to the site with the help of native Indian guides. 

Zuanazzi said he did not know how long the removal of bodies would take or when an official death toll would be announced. The plane had carried 149 passengers and six crew. 

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has decreed three days of national mourning for the victims of the disaster, which has overshadowed Sunday's nationwide general election. 

MID-AIR ACCIDENT 

The Boeing 737-800 probably hit the ground nose first after it clipped a smaller executive jet, Brig. Jose Carlos Pereira, head of the aviation authority Infraero, said on Saturday. 

Search planes spotted the crash site in Mato Grosso state, about 600 miles (1,000 km) northwest of Brasilia, on Saturday. Authorities lost radar contact with the flight on Friday afternoon as it flew from the principal Amazon city of Manaus to the capital Brasilia. 

Manaus is a busy river port and a center for environmental tourism and has a duty-free manufacturing zone in which several foreign companies have factories. 

Brazilian newspapers on Sunday ran photographs of the wreckage showing Gol's orange and white colors clearly visible beneath the jungle canopy. 

Infraero confirmed that the Gol plane had been in "some type of mid-air accident" with a corporate jet that later landed safely at an air force base. Officials were questioning its crew and passengers. 

The smaller jet was damaged, Zuanazzi said. Embraer aircraft manufacturer said a Legacy 600 executive jet manufactured by the company had been involved in a collision and made an emergency landing at Cachimbo air force base with five passengers on board. None was hurt. 

Gol officials said about 113 men and 42 women were on board the Boeing, including an 11-month-old baby and four children. The airline said those on board included about half a dozen foreigners. It did not give their nationalities. 

Relatives gathered in Brasilia, the flight's ultimate destination Rio de Janeiro, and Manaus on Sunday, clinging to the hope that rescue workers would find survivors. 

The Gol plane had been delivered by Boeing new on Sept. 12 and had only 234 flight hours, the company said. 

Gol, an airline modeled on U.S. no-frills carriers, has expanded rapidly since its founding in 2001 to become Brazil's No. 2 airline and to offer flights to neighboring countries. 

Brazil's worst air disaster was in June 1982 when a Vasp plane crashed into a mountain near Fortaleza in northeastern Brazil, killing 137 people. 

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