La Palma residents grapple with devastation wrought by volcano

By Miguel Pereira and Borja Suarez

LA PALMA, Spain (Reuters) -Residents of Spain’s La Palma were struggling on Thursday to come to terms with the devastation wrought by the Cumbre Vieja volcano, which has been ejecting a destructive cocktail of ash, smoke and lava for more than 10 days.

Carmen Rodriguez, who lost her home in the village of Todoque, was caught off guard by the advancing column of molten rock.

“We never thought that the volcano was going to reach our house, never,” she said, recalling how she rushed to salvage belongings during a last-minute evacuation before the lava engulfed her home.

“There were so many people and difficulties, there was a queue. Thankfully we were able to take the washing machine, the fridge and a cooker that I recently bought.”

“I only ask that they give us a place to live, that they give us a habitable house, nothing more,” she said.

Some 6,000 people have been evacuated and are yet to return to their houses, a local government spokesperson said on Thursday.

Since erupting on Sept. 19 the volcano has destroyed more than 800 buildings, as well as banana plantations, roads and other infrastructure.

“It’s unimaginable that this would happen, and now we are living worse days than the COVID state, which was already a bit unreal,” said Dutch national Emilie Sweerts, who has lived on the island in the Canaries archipelago for six years.

“I really thought this would be my paradise island,” she said from her jewelry store in Tazacorte, a small coastal town which the lava ploughed through on its way to the sea, wrecking houses and farms.

After meandering downhill to the coast for nearly 10 days, the lava reached the ocean just before midnight on Tuesday a kilometer west of Tazacorte and has created a rocky outcrop more than 500 meters wide.

On reaching the water, the lava cools rapidly, binding to the cliffside and enlarging the island’s territory.

Despite fears of toxic gases from the lava reacting with the seawater, authorities said the air remained safe to breathe inland.

Emergency services warned that ash thrown out from the crater was blocking sunlight and reducing visibility.

Several villages near the coastline remained locked down as a precaution but banana farmers were allowed access to their plantations to tend their crops.

Reuters correspondents on the island said the eruption appeared to have calmed from around 1000 GMT and no lava was being expelled from the crater, though smoke continued to billow out.

(Writing by Nathan Allen, Editing by Andrei Khalip and Raissa Kasolowsky)

Lava, smoke and ash cover La Palma as volcano threatens banana crop

By Nacho Doce and Marco Trujillo

LA PALMA, Spain (Reuters) -Jets of red hot lava shot into the sky on Spain’s La Palma on Thursday as a huge cloud of toxic ash drifted from the Cumbre Vieja volcano toward the mainland and jeopardized the island’s economically crucial banana crops.

Walls of lava, which turns black when exposed to the air, have advanced slowly westward since Sunday, engulfing everything in their path, including houses, schools and some banana plantations.

Farmers near the town of Todoque raced to save as much as possible of their crop, piling their trucks high with sacks of the green bananas, on which many of the islanders depend for their livelihood.

“We’re just trying to take everything we can,” said a farmer who gave his name as Roberto from the window of his pickup.

Some 15% of La Palma’s 140 million kilogram annual banana production could be at risk if farmers are unable to access plantations and tend to their crops, Sergio Caceres, manager of producer’s association Asprocan, told Reuters.

“There is the main tragedy of destroyed houses — many of those affected are banana producers or employees — but their livelihood is further down the hill,” he said. “Some farms have already been covered.”

Caceres said the farmers were already suffering losses and warned that if lava pollutes the water supply it could potentially cause problems for months to come.

The island produces around a quarter of the Canary Islands’ renowned bananas, which hold protected designation of origin status.

With more than 200 houses destroyed and thousands of evacuated people unable to return home, the Canary Islands’ regional government said it would buy two housing developments with a combined 73 properties for those made homeless. Spanish banks jointly announced they would offer vacant homes they hold across the Canaries as emergency shelter.

Property portal Idealista estimated the volcano had so far destroyed property worth around 87 million euros ($102 million).

Experts had originally predicted the lava would hit the Atlantic Ocean late on Monday but its descent has slowed to a glacial pace of around 4 meters per hour and authorities say it may stop before reaching the sea.

Volcanologists have said gases from the eruption are not harmful to health. But a plume of thick cloud now extends some 4.2 km (2.6 miles) into the air, raising concerns of visibility for flights. The airport remains open but authorities have created two exclusion zones where only authorized aircrafts can fly.

Prevailing winds are expected to propel the cloud northeast over the rest of the Canary archipelago, the Iberian peninsula and the Mediterranean, according to the European Union’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service.

National weather service AEMET said air quality had not been affected at surface level and ruled out acid rain falling over the mainland or the Balearic Islands and was even unlikely in Canary islands.

Local authorities have warned people to clean food and clothes to avoid ingesting the toxic ash.

(Reporting by Borja Suarez, Marco Trujillo, Nacho Doce, Jesus Aguado, Inti Landauro and Emma Pinedo; Writing by Nathan Allen; Editing by Giles Elgood, Peter Graff and Raissa Kasolowsky)

Crews battle wildfires in U.S. West as smoke travels the world

By Deborah Bloom and Brad Brooks

PORTLAND, Ore. (Reuters) – As fire crews continued to battle deadly wildfires sweeping the western United States, thousands of evacuees in Oregon and other states faced a daily struggle while scientists in Europe tracked the smoke on Wednesday as it spread on an intercontinental scale.

With state resources stretched to their limit, President Donald Trump on Tuesday night approved a request from Oregon’s governor for a federal disaster declaration, bolstering federal assistance for emergency response and relief efforts.

Dozens of fires have burned some 4.5 million acres (1.8 million hectares) of tinder-dry brush, grass and woodlands in Oregon, California and Washington state since August, ravaging several small towns, destroying thousands of homes and killing at least 34 people.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has obligated more than $1.2 million in mission assignments to bring relief to Oregon and has deployed five urban search and rescue teams to the wildfire-torn region, the agency said in a statement on Wednesday.

Search teams scoured incinerated homes for the missing as firefighters kept up their exhausting battle.

The wildfires, which officials and scientists have described as unprecedented in scope and ferocity, have filled the region’s skies with smoke and soot, compounding a public health crisis already posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Scientists in Europe tracked the smoke as it bore down on the continent, underscoring the magnitude of the disaster. The European Union’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) is monitoring the scale and intensity of the fires and the transport of the resultant smoke across the United States and beyond.

“The fact that these fires are emitting so much pollution into the atmosphere that we can still see thick smoke over 8,000 kilometers (4,970 miles) away reflects just how devastating they have been in their magnitude and duration,” CAMS Senior Scientist Mark Parrington said in a statement.

CAMS said it uses satellite observations of aerosols, carbon monoxide and other constituents of smoke to monitor and forecast its movement through the atmosphere.

Eight deaths have been confirmed during the past week in Oregon, which became the latest and most concentrated hot spot in a larger summer outbreak of fires across the entire western United States. The Pacific Northwest was hardest hit.

The fires roared to life in California in mid-August, and erupted across Oregon and Washington around Labor Day last week, many of them sparked by catastrophic lightning storms and stoked by record-breaking heat waves and bouts of howling winds.

Weather conditions improved early this week, enabling firefighters to begin to make headway in efforts to contain and tamp down the blazes.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) said 16,600 firefighters were still battling 25 major fires on Tuesday, after achieving full containment around the perimeter of other large blazes.

Firefighters in the San Gabriel Mountains just north of Los Angeles waged an all-out campaign to save the famed Mount Wilson Observatory and an adjacent complex of broadcast transmission towers from flames that crept near the site.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter, Deborah Bloom, Shannon Stapleton and Adrees Latif; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Smoke stalls rescues as Australia plans for next fiery onslaught

By Sonali Paul and Swati Pandey

MELBOURNE/SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australian officials took advantage of better weather on Monday to reopen roads blocked by wildfires and move some people to safety although thick smoke stalled rescue efforts and hundreds of people remained stranded.

Fires have ravaged more than 8 million hectares (19.8 million acres) of land across the country, an area nearly the size of Austria, killing 25 people, destroying thousands of building and leaving some towns without electricity and mobile coverage.

Police on Monday confirmed the death of a 71-year-old man on the south coast of New South Wales (NSW) state who was reported missing on Dec. 31.

A second day of light rain and cool winds brought some relief from heat-fueled blazes that consumed parts of two states over the weekend, but officials warned the dangerous weather was expected to return this week.

Victoria state Premier Daniel Andrews said about 400 people were airlifted on Sunday out of Mallacoota, a small, coastal holiday town.

“We had a plan to airlift another 300 out today. Sadly smoke means that is not possible,” he said.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who has come under criticism for what opponents call his government’s failure to tackle climate change, announced A$2 billion ($1.4 billion) over two years for a newly formed National Bushfire Recovery Agency.

“What we are focusing on here is the human cost and the rebuilding cost for people’s lives,” Morrison told reporters in Canberra.

He said nearly 4,000 cattle and sheep have been killed in the fires. Countless wild animals have been killed.

Dean Linton, a resident of Jindabyne in the Snowy Mountains, used the break in the immediate threat to his town to visit his wife and four children who had fled to Sydney.

He also picked up a fire-fighting pump and generator to help him protect the family home.

“There’s a lot of fuel in that national park; it would only take one lightning strike,” Linton told Reuters.

The bushfire season started earlier than normal this year following a three-year drought that has left much of the country’s bushland tinder-dry.

Following are some highlights of what is happening:

* New Zealand Defence Force said the first of three air force helicopters being sent to help departed on Monday while the other two were expected over the next two days.

* There were no emergency warnings in fire-ravaged states on Monday following the weather change. Two people were missing as 146 fires burned in New South Wales (NSW) but all were back at the “advice” level, the lowest alert rating.

* Victoria state had 39 fires with 13 “watch and act” alerts. All missing people had been accounted for, authorities said.

* About 67,000 people have left or been evacuated from fire-ravaged areas in Victoria, state Emergency Services Minister Lisa Neville said.

* Victoria set up a Bushfire Recovery Agency, with initial funding of A$50 million. The recovery is expected to cost “a lot more” than A$500 million, state premier Andrews said.

* Fire officials said light rain that has brought some relief posed problems for back-burning efforts to starve fires of fuel.

* NSW state power distributor Essential Energy said its network had suffered “significant damage”, with almost 24,000 customers without power. It might take a while to restore power to some areas because of the extent of damage and difficulty in gaining safe access, it said. Affected areas include Batemans Bay on the New South Wales south coast.

* As conditions eased, the NSW fire service said residents of Bega, Tathra, Merimbula, Eden, Pambula, Bermagui and villages to the north and south can now return though they need to monitor conditions.

* Insurers have received 5,850 bushfire-related claims in NSW, Victoria, South Australia and Queensland since the Insurance Council declared a bushfire catastrophe on Nov. 8.

* Losses are estimated at A$375 million since November, with a further A$56 million in insured property losses in September and October, the Insurance Council said. Figures do not include properties lost over the past 24 to 36 hours in areas such as the NSW Southern Highlands and south coast.

* Accommodation provider Aspen Group <APZ.AX> said it expects a A$500,000 hit to both revenue and net operating income from the fires.

* Canberra was running short of masks as smoke blanketed the capital, ACT emergency services said. The National Gallery of Australia said it was closed to protect visitors and art works. The government department responsible for coordinating disaster response also closed due to poor air quality.

* Pictures on social media showed the city of Melbourne cloaked in thick smoke.

* Actor Russell Crowe skipped Hollywood’s Golden Globes ceremony, where he won an award for playing former Fox News Chief Executive Roger Ailes in the TV series “The Loudest Voice in the Room”. Presenter Jennifer Aniston said Crowe stayed in Australia to protect his family from the fires and read remarks he had prepared in which he said the fires were “climate change based”.

* Prime Minister Morrison faced more criticism of his handling of the crisis. “Poor political judgment is one thing. Competency is another thing altogether. This is the political danger zone Scott Morrison wants to avoid,” Rupert Murdoch’s the Australian newspaper, a supporter of the government, said in an article by the newspaper’s national affairs editor.

* Forty-one U.S. firefighters are in Victoria with a further 70 from Canada and the United States expected to join on Jan. 8, the Victoria Country Fire Authority said on Twitter.

(Reporting by Sonali Paul and Swati Pandey; Additional reporting by Paulina Duran and Jonathan Barrett in Sydney and Lisa Richwine in Los Angeles; Editing by Jane Wardell, Robert Birsel)

Australians shelter from bushfires as political heat climbs

By Colin Packham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Firefighters battled hundreds of bushfires across Australia on Thursday as scores of blazes sprang up in new locations, triggering warnings that it was too late for some residents to evacuate.

As Thick smoke blanketed the most populous city of Sydney for a third day, residents were urged to keep children indoors, stepping up pressure on Prime Minister Scott Morrison to tackle climate change.

By early afternoon, dozens of fires were burning across the southeastern state of Victoria and temperatures of 40.9 Celsius (105.6 F) in Melbourne, its capital, matched the hottest day on record in 1894, Australia’s weather bureau said.

Authorities warned residents of towns about 50 km (31 miles) north of Ballarat, the state’s third largest city, that it was too late for them to evacuate safely.

“You are in danger, act now to protect yourself,” fire authorities said in an alert. “It is too late to leave. The safest option is to take shelter indoors immediately.”

Blazes across several states have endangered thousands of people, killing at least four people this month, burning about 2.5 million acres (1 million hectares) of farmland and bush and destroying more than 400 homes.

The early arrival and severity of the fires in the southern hemisphere spring follows three years of drought that experts have linked to climate change and which have left bushland tinder-dry.

With 10 days remaining to the official start of summer, extreme temperatures and high winds have sparked wildfires in new areas, even as firefighters tracked the crisis across the mainland, the Northern Territory and the island of Tasmania.

In Victoria, power to more than 100,000 homes was knocked out amid lightning strikes and strong, gusty winds of more than 110 kph (68 mph) that knocked tree branches into power lines, ahead of a cool change expected to bring relief in the evening.

The extensive damage was likely to leave some customers without power through the night as utilities worked to restore networks and fix downed powerlines, a spokeswoman for power provider Ausnet said.

State authorities issued its first Code Red alert in a decade, signifying the worst possible bushfire conditions, warning that should a fire start it would be fast moving, unpredictable and probably uncontrollable.

In the state of New South Wales, strong winds blew smoke from 60 fires still burning over much of Sydney, shrouding the harbor city and its famous landmarks in thick smog.

The state imposed tough new water curbs in Sydney from Dec. 10, when a key dam is expected to be down to 45% capacity. Residents face fines if they use hoses to water their gardens and wash their cars.

CLIMATE POLITICS

The unrelenting conditions have sharpened attention on the climate change policies of Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who rejected any link.

“Climate change is a global phenomenon, and we’re doing our bit as part of the response to climate change,” Morrison told ABC radio.

“To suggest that, with just 1.3% of global emissions, that Australia doing something differently – more or less – would have changed the fire outcome this season, I don’t think that stands up to any credible scientific evidence at all.”

Morrison’s conservative government has committed to the Paris Agreement for a cut in emissions from 26% to 28% by 2030, versus 2005 levels. Critics say current projections suggest it will miss that target and have urged remedial steps.

(Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Jane Wardell and Clarence Fernandez)

Sydneysiders urged to stay indoors as Australian bushfire smoke blankets city

By Colin Packham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Strong winds stoked more than 100 fires across Australia’s east coast on Tuesday, blanketing Sydney in hazardous smoke and prompting health warnings for the country’s most populous city.

Australia is prone to bushfires in its dry, hot summers, but fierce blazes have been sparked early, in the southern spring, by a long drought and soaring temperatures.

Wildfires have so far this month claimed at least four lives, burnt about 2.5 million acres (1 million hectares) of farmland and bush and destroyed more than 300 homes.

Powerful winds fanned around 130 fires that have been burning across New South Wales and Queensland states for several days, and pushed smoke south to form a thick haze over Sydney, home to around 5 million people.

Officials said the air quality above parts of the harbor city was measured at 10 times hazardous levels on Tuesday and advised people to stay indoors as much as possible as the smoke lingers over coming days.

“We know that heatwaves cause severe illness, hospital admission and even deaths, and that people are more sensitive to heatwaves early in the season,” Richard Broom, director of environmental health at NSW Health said In an emailed statement.

“The combination of heat and poor air quality adds to the risk.”

In NSW, firefighters were scrambling to strengthen fire containment lines ahead of forecast higher temperatures for much of the rest of the week.

“More than 1,300 firefighters are working on these fires, undertaking backburning operations and strengthening containment lines ahead of forecast hot, dry and windy weather, with seven areas under a total fire ban,” the NSW Rural Fire Service said in a statement.

The current bushfire crisis has mostly been contained to the east coast of NSW and Queensland states, but officials in South Australia warned on Tuesday that forecast near-record temperatures raises the risks in that state.

Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology said temperatures in Adelaide, the capital of South Australia, will hit 42 degrees Celsius (107.6 degrees Fahrenheit) on Wednesday, which coupled with strong winds will create “catastrophic” fire danger conditions.

(Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Paul Tait and Jane Wardell)

The sky never goes dark while the Amazon burns

Smoke billows during a fire in an area of the Amazon rainforest near Humaita, Amazonas State, Brazil, Brazil August 14, 2019. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

By Jake Spring

HUMAITA, Brazil (Reuters) – There are no lights in sight but the night sky glows a dusky yellow, for the Amazon is burning.

Smoke billows during a fire in an area of the Amazon rainforest near Humaita, Amazonas State, Brazil, Brazil August 17, 2019. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

Smoke billows during a fire in an area of the Amazon rainforest near Humaita, Amazonas State, Brazil, Brazil August 17, 2019. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

The smell is of barbecue, of wood charcoal up in flames. During the day the sun, usually so fierce in these parts, is obscured by thick gray smoke.

For the last seven days Reuters has repeatedly driven a 30-kilometer (18.6 miles) stretch from Humaita towards Labrea along the Trans-Amazonian highway, watching a fire eat its way through the jungle.

At first, on Wednesday of last week the raging fire stood just a few yards (meters) off the roadway, the yellow flames engulfing trees and lighting up the sky. By the weekend the fire had receded into the distance but cast an orange glow several stories high.

The fire is just one of thousands currently decimating the Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest and a bulwark against climate change.

Wildfires have surged 83% so far this year when compared to the same period in 2018, according to Brazil’s space research agency INPE.

The government agency has registered 72,843 fires, the highest number since records began in 2013. More than 9,500 have been spotted by satellites since last Thursday alone.

On Wednesday, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro enraged environmentalists by making unfounded claims that non-governmental organizations were starting the fires out of anger after he cut their funding.

Global outrage has torn through social media, with #PrayforAmazonas the world’s top trending topic on Twitter on Wednesday.

Reuters observed plumes of smoke billowing from the forest, reaching hundreds of feet (dozens of meters) into the air, during a weeklong trip to southern Amazonas and northern Rondonia states.

“All you can see is smoke,” said Thiago Parintintin, who lives in an indigenous reserve just off the Trans-Amazonian highway, pointing to the horizon.

A yellow truck bearing the logo of Brazil’s forest firefighters had just rushed past.

“It didn’t use to be like this,” Parintintin added.

A 22-year-old trained indigenous environmental agent, Parintintin blames the increasing development of the Amazon for bringing agriculture and deforestation, resulting in rising temperatures during the dry season.

Fires start in the underbrush that has been drying over the dry season. Smoke envelopes still lush patches of fronds and palm trees, as the understory smolders before the upper tiers of vegetation catch fire.

Environmentalists also say farmers set the forest alight to clear land for cattle grazing.

The smoke from the resulting fires hangs at the horizon like a fog.

Gabriel Albuquerque, a pilot in Rondonia state’s capital city of Porto Velho, said that in four years of flying his small propeller plane it has never been this bad.

“It is the first time that I’ve ever seen it like this,” he said, as he prepared to go up.

From the sky, the fires ranged from small pockets to those bigger than a football field, with the smoke making it impossible to see behind the front line of flames to discern the full extent of the blaze.

Sometimes the smoke was so thick the forest itself appeared to have disappeared.

(Reporting by Jake Spring; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Plane used to carry U.S. troops catches fire at Irish airport

Emergency vehicles respond after an Omni Air International Boeing 767-300 (not pictured) caught fire at Shannon Airport, Ireland August 15, 2019 in this image obtained from social media. Charles Pereira via REUTERS

DUBLIN (Reuters) – A plane that regularly carries U.S. troops through Ireland’s Shannon Airport caught fire shortly before it was due to take off on Thursday, forcing a five-hour suspension of flights at Shannon and cancellation of some trips.

Shannon Airport temporarily suspended operations at 0537 GMT after the incident involving an Omni Air International Boeing 767-300 due to depart for the Middle East. All 145 passengers and 14 crew disembarked after emergency services were called.

Air traffic controllers noticed a fire and smoke coming from the aircraft as it taxied along the runway after having to abort its take-off for technical reasons, according to Niall Maloney, operations director at Shannon Airport.

“The problem with an aborted take-off is you can probably get things like hot brakes and when the aircraft went around again to come back on the apron, a flame was spotted,” Maloney told Irish national broadcaster RTE.

Omni Air International is a civilian airline that says it transports U.S. and foreign military troops and military family members around the world.

In a Twitter post, Omni Air said it was participating in an investigation of the incident after the aircraft “rejected take-off” and was safely evacuated. Initial reports indicated no serious injuries to passengers or crew, it added.

Ireland provides landing and refueling facilities to the U.S. military at Shannon, the country’s second busiest airport, particularly for transatlantic flights.

An average of around 300 U.S. troops passed through Shannon Airport each day in the first three months of the year, according to Ireland’s Transport Ministry.

The incident forced the cancellation of 10 flights including eight to and from Britain operated by IAG’s Aer Lingus, and an American Airlines aircraft that was due to arrive from Philadelphia before it returned to the U.S. city.

The airport reopened just before 1030 GMT.

(Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Ethiopian plane smoked and shuddered before deadly plunge

Ethiopian Federal policemen stand at the scene of the Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET 302 plane crash, near the town of Bishoftu, southeast of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia March 11, 2019. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

By Duncan Miriri

GARA-BOKKA, Ethiopia (Reuters) – The Ethiopian Airways plane that crashed killing 157 people was making a strange rattling noise and trailed smoke and debris as it swerved above a field of panicked cows before hitting earth, according to witnesses.

Flight 302 took off from the Ethiopian capital on Sunday morning bound for Nairobi with passengers from more than 30 countries. All on board the Boeing 737 MAX 8 died.

The pilot had requested permission to return, saying he was having problems – but it was too late.

(graphic: https://tmsnrt.rs/2CdCVUi)

Half a dozen witnesses interviewed by Reuters in the farmland where the plane came down reported smoke billowing out behind, while four of them also described a loud sound.

“It was a loud rattling sound. Like straining and shaking metal,” said Turn Buzuna, a 26-year-old housewife and farmer who lives about 300 meters (328 yards) from the crash site.

“Everyone says they have never heard that kind of sound from a plane and they are under a flight path,” she added.

Malka Galato, 47, a barley and wheat farmer whose field the plane crashed in, also described smoke and sparks from the back. “The plane was very close to the ground and it made a turn… Cows that were grazing in the fields ran in panic,” he said.

Tamirat Abera, 25, was walking past the field at the time. He said the plane turned sharply, trailing white smoke and items like clothes and papers, then crashed about 300 meters away.

“It tried to climb but it failed and went down nose first,” he said. “There was fire and white smoke which then turned black.”

CHILDREN’S BOOKS, PERFUME AT CRASH

As the plane had only just taken off, it was loaded with fuel.

At the site, Red Cross workers in masks sifted gently through victims’ belongings. Children’s books – Dr Seuss’s “Oh The Thinks You Can Think” and “Anne of Green Gables” – lay near a French-English dictionary burnt along one edge.

A woman’s brown handbag, the bottom burnt, lay open next to an empty bottle of perfume.

The aircraft was broken into small pieces, the largest among them a wheel and a dented engine. The debris was spread over land roughly the size of two soccer fields.

“When it was hovering, fire was following its tail, then it tried to lift its nose,” said another witness, Gadisa Benti. “When it passed over our house, the nose pointed down and the tail raised up. It went straight to the ground with its nose, it then exploded.”

Local resident Nigusu Tesema helped gather victims’ scattered identity papers to hand to police.

“We are shocked and saddened,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Kumerra Gemechu and Tiksa Negeri; Writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

Passengers recount escape from burning Mexican plane

Firefighters douse a fire as smoke billows above the site where an Aeromexico-operated Embraer passenger jet crashed in Mexico's northern state of Durango, July 31, 2018, in this picture obtained from social media. Proteccion Civil Durango/via REUTERS

By Julia Love and Daina Beth Solomon

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Shortly after boarding her flight in the northern Mexican state of Durango afternoon on Tuesday afternoon, Ashley Garcia had a premonition that something was wrong.

The 17-year-old high school student from Northlake, a suburb of Chicago, was one of 65 U.S. citizens among the 103 passengers and crew aboard the Aeromexico passenger jet that crashed near the runway shortly after take-off.

Settling into her seat, Garcia saw a storm was gathering fast in the distance, and by the time the aircraft began preparing for takeoff it was battered by strong winds, hail and rain. Garcia captured the scene through her window with her cellphone.

“I had a gut feeling: just record it, just record it,” said Garcia. “I was like, there’s no way we are taking off, it’s too risky.”

The flight crashed moments after taking off, skidding to a halt in scrubland near the runway, a wing in flames. Passengers described how they followed escape procedures, enabling everyone to evacuate without any fatalities.

“We had been told so many times what to do,” Garcia said of the safety protocol passengers around the world are taught every time they board a plane. “No one ever thinks it’s going to happen until it happens to them. We were there for each other… That’s how we were able to get off safely.”

Investigators found the Embraer passenger jet’s recorders on Wednesday and have still to determine the cause of the crash. Aeromexico said 64 people have been released from hospitals. Two people, including the pilot, were more seriously injured.

Garcia was returning to the United States with three cousins after a two-week trip to visit relatives, traveling from Durango to Mexico City to catch a connecting flight to Chicago.

Liliana Gallarzo, Garcia’s cousin, thought the bumpy take-off was turbulence until the aircraft began skidding and panic set in.

“We were screaming,” said Gallarzo, a 19-year-old college student from Chicago. “Everyone was trying to get away from the plane, trying to get out.”

They smelled the smoke right away. But the cousins were seated in the middle of the cabin, and passengers were exiting from the front and rear doors, as the emergency exits in the middle of the plane were unused due to the fire near the wing, Garcia said.

Filing behind fellow travelers, they made their way toward the rear as the aircraft filled with smoke. Garcia grabbed her phone but left her luggage behind, losing her glasses in the shuffle.

When they reached the exit, there were no emergency slides, meaning they had to jump, Garcia said. A trampoline was there to cushion their fall, and fellow passengers helped them make the jump.

Once off the plane, Garcia coughed and vomited, choking for air. A flight attendant directed the cousins to get as far away as possible from the plane, which was soon engulfed by the fire, leaving only smoldering wreckage after firefighters extinguished the blaze. They walked through the rain, their clothes soaked.

After waiting for further direction, they headed closer to the runway, where firefighters, paramedics, and other emergency personnel sprang into action, checking passengers for injuries. Suffering from minor scratches and bruises, Garcia was taken to the hospital, where she underwent X-rays and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) before returning home that night.

She said the compassion shown to her by emergency personnel affirmed her desire to be a police officer. She has a flight home booked for Friday.

“I didn’t think I would be able to get back on a flight, but I have experienced the worst,” Garcia said. “So now, whatever happens, it’s meant to happen.”

(Reporting by Julia Love and Daina Beth Solomon; writing by Julia Love; editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)