Over 150 people were killed yesterday after a plane bound for the holiday island of Gran Canaria crashed on take-off, swerved off the runway and burst into flames at Madrid airport, in western Europe's worst air disaster in seven years.
Ambulances and police raced to Barajas airport but emergency services found themselves retrieving charred corpses rather than rescuing the living.
"The plane was completely destroyed," Herbigio Corral, an emergency services spokesman, told Spanish radio. "It was totally unrecognisable, just a skeleton of twisted metal, with bodies flung in all directions over a wide area. A lot of them were children."
The airline Spanair said there had been 172 people on board including the crew and, last night, the Spanish government put the death toll at 153. That meant only 19 people had survived the inferno, which was so ferocious that helicopters were called in to dump water over the wreckage before firefighters could get near.
Even when they did, according to one police officer, the bodies were too hot to touch.
"The corpses were being roasted, and we were burnt trying to recover them."
The causes of the crash, which happened at 2.45pm on a summer's afternoon at the height of the holiday season, remained unclear but rival theories were already emerging last night.
The flight from Madrid to Las Palmas had been scheduled to depart at 1pm but returned from the runway to its stand after reportedly developing engine trouble. On its second attempt at take-off, barely had the MD-82 plane got airborne when its left engine caught fire, some witnesses said. Others reported hearing a large bang and seeing a fire inside the plane.
Fernanda Paloma, whose twin sister received hospital treatment for her injuries, said she had spoken to her sibling just before the fateful take-off.
"She told me the flight had been delayed for an hour following a red light alert but it was now taking off. Then she said the plane was juddering about, and the line went dead."
The flaming plane ploughed into a valley, its tail severed , and left metres of burnt gouged-out ground in its wake. The crash at Terminal 2 sent columns of black smoke billowing across the Spanish capital in a blaze that took hours to extinguish.
Manuel Muela Mata was on his way home from work, driving along the motorway that runs alongside the runway at the time of the crash. "I saw an airplane in front of me, it seemed to be landing. I looked at it from the side and what caught my attention was the fact that it was trailing an immense cloud of sand in its wake.
"But then I realised that it had taken off from the runway and I was scared. I slowed down and when the plane suddenly veered to the right, its right wing crashed to the ground. At that point there was a big explosion."
Spanish health authorities reported last night that 19 people were being treated in hospital, mostly for serious burns. "It is miraculous that there were survivors," one eyewitness said. Mr Corral said that many of the survivors had been flung from the plane by the force of the impact and had landed in a ditch, saving them from the worst of the flames.
The judge in charge of investigating the crash last night ordered gruesome images of the site to be withheld from public distribution. The government stressed the tragedy was a civil aviation accident not a terrorist attack and the black box was last night recovered and passed on to investigators.
Scenes of desperation gripped Las Palmas airport in the Canary Islands as hundreds of relatives, friends and neighbours waited for news of their loved ones.
Spanair is a subsidiary of the Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS) airline, and the scheduled flight JK5022 shared a code with the German carrier Lufthansa on flight LH255. Passengers from Denmark and Sweden were among those on board but the airline said it would not be releasing a passenger list until the next of kin had been informed.
SAS has been struggling with high fuel prices and tough competition during an economic slowdown. It has announced it was laying off 1,062 staff and cutting routes to turn the airline around after losing $81m (£44m) in the first half of the year. Just hours before the crash, Spanair's pilots had threatened to strike.
An airline spokesman said that the plane was 15 years old, had passed all its annual checks, but declined to speculate on the likely cause of the failure. The plane had undergone its last check in January, and had suffered no problem since, the spokesman said. Yesterday's disaster was the first major air crash in western Europe since 8 October 2001 when an SAS airliner collided with a small plane in heavy fog on the runway at Milan's Linate airport, killing 118 people. Spain's worst air disaster occurred in 1977 at Tenerife when two planes crashed, causing 585 deaths.
The rescue operation swiftly turned to one of recovery, and continued through the night as emergency services had great difficulties in extracting remains from the burnt out plane.
Spain's Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero cut short his holiday to visit the scene of the tragedy, on a scale comparable to that following Madrid's train bombings in March 2004.
The mayor of Madrid, Alberto Ruiz Gallardon, said: "I feel a deep sense of grief, as Madrid has once again suffered." The bodies from the plane crash were taken to the exhibition centre near the airport that was set up as a provisional mortuary after the bombings four years ago.
Convoys of hearses carried bodies from the runway as weeping families approached the mortuary, desperate for news of their loved ones. "Identification could take until Thursday, which only compounds the suffering of families," said Fernando Chacon, a spokesman for Madrid's psychologists at the scene. "The families are in shock. People react in different ways. Some delay accepting what's happened. We have to help them come to terms with reality. The longer it takes the deeper is their suffering."
A total of 172 people were on the plane, including two infants, and nine crew members. All the crew were believed to have perished. Emergency services set up a field hospital at the scene, with helicopters, ambulances and mobile intensive care units snaking to and from the scene.
Aviation Herald reports that the same aircraft had technical trouble four days ago: "A Spanair McDonnell Douglas MD-82, registration EC-HFS performing flight JK5113 from Lanzarote,CI to Madrid,SP (Spain), diverted to Las Palmas,CI (Spain) due to a generator failure about 30 minutes into the flight.
"Air Traffic Control understood, that an engine had failed and activated a full emergency response. The landing was normal, passengers disembarked normally. After repairs the flight resumed and arrived in Madrid with a delay of 4 hours."
The last major Spanish accident involving a major airline was in Bilbao in 1985 when 148 people died as their plane crashed while approaching the city's airport.
As the government declared three days of mourning, the Spanish Olympic Committee announced the national flag in the Olympic village in Beijing would fly at half-mast and Spain's footballers stood for a minute's silence before a friendly international with Denmark.
People concerned for friends or relatives who may have been on board the plane can call Spanair's helpline on: +34 800 400 200.
Investigators examining the causes of the Spanair Flight JK5022 crash will be keen to inspect the plane's black box recorder, which will reveal the exact chain of events that ended with the MD-82 hurtling into a field and catching fire at Madrid's Barajas airport.