Thirteen killed as plane crashes off Sicily

A Tunisian airliner heading for an emergency landing in Sicily ditched into rough seas off the Mediterranean island, and at least 13 of the 39 people aboard died, Italian authorities and airline officials said. Some of the 23 survivors clung to the wing or fuselage as they screamed to rescuers.

“Some people were on the wing, screaming, yelling for help,” said Filippo Morgante, an official at Palermo fire department operations centre, which sent boats out for the rescue.

“Others were on the fuselage, and some were trapped inside the plane,” Morgante said. “Some weren’t wearing lifejackets.
Maybe they didn’t have the time to put them on.”

In Tunisia, Tuninter airline’s chief executive Moncef Zouari told a news conference that 13 people died, three were missing and 23 survived. Italian investigators, fire officials and port authorities also confirmed that a total of 23 people had been taken to hospitals and 13 bodies brought to shore.

The rescue operation went into the night, as fire boat crews and coast guard ships searched for three missing people.

The Italian news agency Apcom, quoting unidentified Palermo mortuary officials said that three bodies were later recovered, raising the death toll to 16, but that report could not immediately be confirmed.

Tunisian officials said all of the passengers were Italian, and TG24 television said most of them were from Puglia, the region in the “heel” of the Italian peninsula.

At Palermo’s Giaccone Polyclinic, where the bodies were brought to the morgue, coroner Paolo Procacciati said that the victims included nine women, three men and a young girl.

The Tuninter airline ATR-72 went down 16km off Sicily’s Cape Gallo on the island’s north coast near Palermo’s Falcone-Borsellino airport, authorities said.

The pilot had contacted Rome airport aviation officials at 3.24pm (1.24pm GMT) on Saturday reporting engine trouble and asked permission to make an emergency landing in Palermo, said Nicoletta Tommessile, a spokesperson for ENAV, Italy’s air safety agency.

Sixteen minutes later, the pilot told tower officials: “We’re ditching in the sea,” Tommessile said.

The flight operated by Tuninter, an affiliate of Tunisair, had departed from Bari, Italy, for the Tunisian resort of Djerba, popular with Italian vacationers. The flight was about half full.

As divers searched for victims, objects from the holiday-makers’ lives bobbed by: a black rubber flip flop, a book, a carry-on bag.

Waves towered as high as three metres and winds rocked the plane, Palermo port authority official Paolo Maioli said by telephone.

“The rescuers had to struggle against the wind, so the rescue times suffered a delay of at least 10 minutes in bringing help,” Maioli said. He said it took rescuers 40 minutes to arrive in their boats.

SKY TG24 TV said the pilot survived and told ENAV officials that the engines had lost power, but Tommessile said she could not immediately confirm that.

The pilot and co-pilot were among the survivors, said Giuseppe Ganci, a doctor at Palermo’s Civic Hospital. He told SKY TG24 that the pilot had a neck injury, while X-rays performed on the co-pilot found no major injuries.

Earlier, an ENAV spokesperson, Adalberto Pellegrino, said the aircraft was apparently intact when it hit the water.

“The airplane was controlled until it made contact with the water,” Pellegrino said.

Palermo Prosecutor Piero Grasso, at Palermo’s port where survivors and bodies were being taken off rescue ships, said authorities had ruled out terrorism.

Hours later, the tail broke off from the main wreckage, rescuers said. A big piece of the blue-painted fuselage could be seen being tossed by the choppy seas, with a yellow floatation device which divers had attached to one end, helping to keep it afloat.

Palermo port official Vincenzo Pace told SKY TG24 that some of the bodies were found several kilometres from the wreckage, apparently carried away by the rough seas.

Italian prosecutors will investigate any possible criminal cause, such as negligence, which might have forced the plane down.

ENAV was also investigating.

Nine of the survivors were in serious condition, said Captain Giuseppe Averna, an official with the sea division of the Italian border police.

The ATR-72, which was built in France, has a two-person crew and seats up to 74 passengers. Its maiden flight was in 1988. - Sapa-AP

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