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Plane crashes in Cuba killing more than 100, investigation underway

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By Sarah Marsh and Nelson Acosta

HAVANA (Reuters) – More than 100 people were killed when a Boeing 737 crashed soon after taking off from Havana in what appeared to be Cuba’s worst air disaster in nearly 30 years, and there were only three survivors, officials and state media said on Friday.

The passenger plane, on a domestic flight to Holguin in eastern Cuba, crashed at 12:08 p.m. (1608 GMT). There were 105 passengers, including five children, plus crew members, state media reported.

Five of the passengers and the crew were foreign, according to media reports. Two Argentine citizens and an unspecified number of Mexicans were among the dead, the Argentine and Mexican governments said.

President Miguel Diaz-Canel said in broadcast comments that a high number of people appeared to have been killed. He said the fire from the crash had been extinguished and authorities were identifying bodies.

Diaz-Canel said authorities were investigating the cause of the crash.

Cuba declared an official period of mourning from 6 a.m. on May 19 to 12 p.m. on May 20, during which the flag would be flown at half-mast outside state and military institutions.

Former Cuban president Raul Castro, who now heads the country’s ruling Communist Party, offered his condolences to the families of those who died in the crash as he recovered from a hernia operation, State media reported

This was the first time Cuba reported on a health issue for Castro, 86, who last month handed over the reins of power to his right-hand man Diaz-Canel.

Castro “who is recovering satisfactorily from a recent planned surgery to get rid of a hernia is staying up to date on the situation and has given the relevant guidance,” the Communist Party newspaper Granma reported.

Blackened wreckage of Flight CU972 was strewn over the crash site, 20 km (12 miles) south of Havana.

“We heard an explosion and then saw a big cloud of smoke go up,” said Gilberto Menendez, who runs a restaurant near the crash site in the agricultural area of Boyeros.

The flight’s destination, Holguin, is the capital of a province popular with tourists for its pristine beaches.

Carlos Alberto Martinez, director of Havana’s Calixto Garcia hospital, told Reuters that four victims of the crash had been were brought there and one died. Three others, all women, were in a serious condition, he said.

“She is alive but very burned and swollen,” said one of the women’s relatives at the hospital.

The Mexican transport department said on its website, “During take-off (the plane) apparently suffered a problem and dived to the ground.”

The Boeing 737-201 aircraft was built in 1979 and leased by Cuban airline Cubana from a small Mexican company called Damojh, according to the Mexican government.

Damojh in Mexico said it did not immediately have any more information. Cubana declined to comment.

Mexico said it would send a team of investigators from its Directorate General of Civil Aeronautics on Saturday. Most aircraft accidents take months to investigate.

A U.S. State Department official said the agency was not aware of any request for U.S. assistance at this time, but the National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Aviation Administration had offered to assist in the investigation.

The State Department has spoken with the Cuban ambassador to offer condolences, the official said.

Boeing Co said in a statement that its technical team stood “ready to assist as permitted under U.S. law and at the direction of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board and Cuban authorities.” The United States has a decades-old trade embargo on the island.

The earliest Boeing 737s like the one that crashed use engines made by Pratt & Whitney, part of U.S.-based industrial group United Technologies.

On Thursday, Cuba’s First Vice President Salvador Valdés Mesa met with Cubana bosses to discuss public complaints about its service, according to state-run media, including numerous cancellations of domestic flights this year and long delays.

Earlier this month, the company was ordered to suspend flights of its six Russian built AN-158 aircraft, of which most had reportedly already been grounded, according to state-run media.

The last fatal crash in Cuba was in 2017, the Aviation Safety Network said. It was a military flight and all eight on board were killed. In 2010, a commercial Aero Caribbean plane crashed in central Cuba and all 68 people on board were killed.

In the worst Cubana disaster, a Soviet-made Ilyushin-62M passenger plane crashed near Havana in 1989 killing all 126 people on board.

(This version of the story corrects name of engine maker in paragraph 22)

(Reporting by Sarah Marsh, Nelson Acosta and Marc Frank in Havana; Additional reporting by Anthony Esposito, Julia Love, Christine Murray, Dave Graham and Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico, and Lesley Wroughton in Washington; Writing by Rosalba O’Brien; Editing by Grant McCool, Toni Reinhold)

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Hawaii volcano spews 6 mile-high plume of ash, could blow again

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By Terray Sylvester

PAHOA, Hawaii (Reuters) – Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano spewed ash nearly six miles (9 km) into the sky on Thursday and scientists warned this could be the first in a string of more violent explosive eruptions with the next possibly occurring within hours.

“This has relieved pressure temporarily,” U.S. Geological Survey geologist Michelle Coombs told a news conference in Hilo. “We may have additional larger, powerful events.”

Residents of the Big Island were warned to take shelter from the ash as toxic gas levels spiked in a small southeast area where lava has burst from the ground during the two-week eruption.

The wind could carry Kilauea’s ash plume as far as Hilo, the Big Island’s largest city and a major tourism center, the County of Hawaii Civil Defense warned in an alert.

“Protect yourself from ash fallout,” it said.

Some Big Island residents had feared “the big one” after Kilauea shot anvil-sized “ballistic blocks” into the visitors’ car park on Wednesday and was rocked by earthquakes that damaged buildings and cracked roads in the park that was closed last week.

But geologists said the 4:15 a.m. (10:15 a.m. EDT) explosion was not particularly large and on a par with the last series of steam-driven blasts, which took place in 1924.

“The activity is such that they can occur at any time, separated by a number of hours,” Hawaiian National Volcano Observatory Deputy Scientist-In-Charge Steve Brantley told reporters on a conference call.

Geologists said it was extremely unlikely Kilauea would have a massive eruption like that of 1790 which killed dozens of people in the deadliest eruption to occur in what is now the United States.

Kilauea’s falling lava lake has likely descended to a level at or below the water table, allowing water to run on to the top of its lava column and create steam-driven blasts, they said.

“I don’t think there is a big one that’s coming,” said University of Hawaii vulcanologist Scott Rowland.

“I think it’s going to be a series of explosions similar to the one that happened this morning, and that’s based on what happened in 1924, which is really our only analog,” he said of the nearly century old event, which lasted 2-1/2 weeks and killed one person who was hit by a “ballistic block.”

On Thursday, a 21st fissure also opened in Leilani Estates while other fissures reactivated with lava, the Hawaii Civil Defense said in an alert.

 

ASH MASKS

A spike in toxic sulfur dioxide gas levels closed schools around the town of Pahoa, 25 miles (40 km) east of the volcano, where lava from giant cracks has destroyed 37 homes and other structures and forced about 2,000 residents to evacuate.

A change in wind direction caused gas spewing from fissures to drift northwest towards Pahoa, prompting National guard troops to don gas masks at a nearby road intersection, according to a Reuters reporter.

Pahoa fire station recorded a “red level” of sulfur dioxide, meaning the gas would cause choking and an inability to breathe, Fenix Grange of the Hawaii Department of Health told a news conference in Hilo.

“If it’s red, it’s get out of Dodge,” she said.

There have been no deaths or serious injuries reported during the current eruption.

Civil defense workers handed out one ash mask per family member in communities close to Kilauea to protect residents from the powdered rock, which is not poisonous but causes irritation to eyes and airways.

Volunteers handed out some 5,000 dust masks in less than three hours in the community of Kea’au, north of Pahoa at one of the four distribution points that were opened on Thursday.

“It was just thick, eyes watering kinda stuff,” said Glenn Severance, 65, a resident of Hawaii Paradise Park.

“I just wanted to have something,” said Severance, adding he knew the mask would not protect against toxic volcanic gases.

An aviation red alert was in effect due to risks ash could be carried into aircraft routes and damage jet engines, USGS said. Passenger jets generally cruise at around 30,000 feet, the height of Thursday’s plume.

Across the Big Island, home to 200,000 residents, people were encouraged to take caution driving, as ashfall can make roads slippery, and not go outdoors unless necessary.

But by 1:30 p.m. (7:30 p.m. EDT) reported ashfall was limited to only light, wet deposits about 3-4 miles (5-6 km) northwest of the summit, as rain over the volcano curbed the spread of ash.

Thursday’s eruption lasted only a few minutes, said Coombs who called it “a big event that got people’s attention, but did not have widespread impact”.

“Tall but small,” she said of Thursday’s plume.

 

(Additional reporting by Jolyn Rosa in Honolulu; Writing by Andrew Hay; Editing by Bill Tarrant, Sandra Maler and Himani Sarkar)

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Thailand’s Top Green Resorts Are The Most Wanted

Taking seamless key performance indicators offline to maximise the long tail. Keeping your eye on the ball while performing a deep dive.

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The Best and Comfort Seaside Inn in The Country

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