YOGYAKARTA, Indonesia, (AP) -A packed jetliner crash-landed and erupted in flames Wednesday, killing at least 21 people trapped inside the burning wreckage. More than 115 others escaped through emergency exits as black smoke billowed behind them, authorities and witnesses said.
Survivors said the Boeing 737-400 operated by the national carrier, Garuda, shook violently as the plane approached Yogyakarta airport and then overshot the runway, plowing through a fence and then coming to a halt in a rice field.
“Suddenly there was smoke inside the fuselage; it hit the runway and then it landed in a rice field,” local Islamic leader Dien Syamsudin told El-Shinta radio station. “I saw a foreigner. His clothes were on fire and I jumped from the emergency exit. Thank God I survived.”
The government ordered an investigation into the crash, the third involving a commercial jetliner in the country in as many months. On New Year’s Day, a jet plummeted into the sea, killing all 102 people on board. Weeks later, a plane broke apart on landing, though there were no casualties.
About 19 foreigners were on board Wednesday’s flight from Jakarta, nine of them Australians. Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said five of the nine survived the fire with injuries, and information was urgently being sought on the others.
“It is a terrible tragedy,” Australian Prime Minister John Howard told a nationally television news conference. “Many lives have been lost, and our love and sympathy and condolences go to those who are suffering distress and grief.”
Transport Minister Hatta Radjasa told reporters in Yogyakarta that 21 of the 140 passengers and crew on board died, while two others remained unaccounted for. He said that two of the dead were Australian citizens.
Earlier, Australia’s prime minister had said that Indonesian officials had confirmed 49 people were dead. It was unclear where he got that information.
Television video shot by a cameraman for Australia’s Seven Network who survived the landing showed passengers fleeing the plane as black smoke, then orange flames, poured from the fuselage.
An explosion and fireball ripped through the air, apparently as the fire reached a fuel tank, the footage showed. It showed dazed and burned victims, including Indonesians and Westerners, sitting on the floor or lying on gurneys in the airport terminal.
Seven Network said the cameraman shot the video after escaping from the fire.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono ordered a thorough investigation into the crash, appointing the security minister to look into possible “nontechnical” causes, said spokesman Andi Mallarangeng, in an apparent reference to sabotage.
The blaze started at the front of the plane as it touched down at the airport, said survivors, several of whom had time to take their hand luggage with them. It took more than two hours to put out the fire.
The Australians on board were diplomatic staff and journalists who were traveling from the capital, Jakarta, ahead of Australia’s Foreign Affairs minister and Attorney-General Philip Ruddock, who had been due to attend a function later Wednesday. Neither official was aboard the stricken plane.
Howard said he had no information foul play was suspected.
“I have not received any advice suggesting it was anything other than a tragic accident,” he told reporters in Melbourne. “I’ve not received any advice suggesting that there was sabotage or a terrorist attack.”
Another survivor told local TV station RCTI TV that “before landing I felt the plane shake strongly.”
“We overshot the runway, then I heard the sound of an explosion and ran through an emergency exit,” said passenger Muhammad Dimyati.
Indonesia has been hit by a string of transportation disasters in recent months. In late December, a passenger ferry sank in a storm in the Java Sea, killing more than 400 people.
Days later, a passenger plane operated by the budget airline Adam Air crashed into the ocean, killing all 102 people on board. A ship that sank near the capital’s port left at least 50 dead.
The government responded by saying it would ban local commercial airlines from operating planes more than 10 years old, though most experts say maintenance and the number of takeoffs and landings are the most important factors in preventing accidents.