The only three survivors from a plane crash in Cuba which killed more than 100 people – including 20 clergy members of an evangelical church – remain gravely ill in hospital, officials have said.
Carlos Alberto Martinez, director of the Calixto Garcia Hospital in capital city Havana, said the three Cuban women are in an extremely grave condition.
Relatives of those who died gathered at a morgue in the capital, weeping and embracing each other, as investigators tried to piece together why the ageing Boeing 737 carrying 110 people went down and erupted in flames shortly after taking off from Havana's José Martí International Airport on Friday afternoon.
The Cuban Council of Churches announced that 20 clergy members of an evangelical church were among the dead.
“On that plane were 10 couples of pastors, 20 people. All of the Nazarene Church in the eastern region,” said Maite Quesada, a member of the council.
The pastors had spent several days at a meeting in the capital and were returning to their homes and places of worship in the province of Holguin.
Skies were overcast and rainy at the airport at the time of Cuba’s third major air accident since 2010 and state television said the 39-year-old jet veered sharply to the right after departing on a domestic flight to the eastern city of Holguin.
Eyewitness and private salon owner Rocio Martinez said she heard a strange noise and looked up to see the plane with a turbine on fire.
“In flames, here it comes falling toward the ground and it seems (the pilot) saw it was an area that was too residential and makes a sharp turn,” Ms Martinez said. “To avoid (the houses) … to avoid a tragedy, because there would have been a massacre.”
Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel said a special commission had been formed to find the cause of the crash. The plane had 104 passengers and six crew members.
State airline Cubana, which operated the flight, has had a generally good safety record but is notorious for delays and cancellations, and has taken many of its planes out of service because of maintenance problems in recent months, prompting it to hire charter aircraft from other companies.
Mexican officials said the Boeing 737-201 was built in 1979 and rented by Cubana from Aerolineas Damojh, a small charter company that also goes by the name Global Air.
Aviation authorities in Guyana last year stopped the same aircraft from conducting charter flights because of serious safety concerns, including fears about excessive baggage overloading and other issues.
A statement from Mexico’s Transportation Department identified the pilot and co-pilot as Captain Jorge Luis Nunez Santos and first officer Miguel Angel Arreola Ramirez.
It said the flight attendants were Maria Daniela Rios, Abigail Hernandez Garcia and Beatriz Limon. Global Air said maintenance worker Marco Antonio Lopez Perez was also aboard.
In addition to the Mexican crew, Cuban Communist Party newspaper Granma reported that the passengers were mostly Cubans plus five foreigners from countries it did not identify. Argentina’s Foreign Ministry said two of its citizens had died in the crash.