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Brazilian plane crash death toll rises as rescuers find more charred bodies

The pilot of an airliner that burst into flames after trying to land on a short, rain-slicked runway apparently tried to take off again, barely clearing rush-hour traffic on a major highway. The death toll rose Wednesday to 189, and could climb higher as firefighters pull more charred bodies from the scene.

The runway at Sao Paulo's Congonhas airport has been repeatedly criticized as dangerously short. Two planes slipped off it in rainy weather just a day earlier. Pilots call it the "aircraft carrier" - it's so short and surrounded by heavily populated neighborhoods that they're told to take off again and fly around if they overshoot the first 1,000 (305 meters) feet of runway.

"What appears to have happened is that he (the pilot) didn't manage to land and he tried to take off again," said Capt. Marcos, a spokesman for the Sao Paulo Fire Department who would only identify himself by rank and first name in accordance with department guidelines.

The plane - a domestic flight from Porto Alegre - cleared the airport fence and the busy highway, but slammed into the gas station and a TAM airlines building, causing an inferno. Temperatures reached 1,000 degrees (1,830 Fahrenheit) inside the plane, and officials said there was no way passengers could have survived.

"All of a sudden I heard a loud explosion, and the ground beneath my feet shook," said Elias Rodrigues Jesus, a TAM worker, who was walking nearby when he saw the jet explode. "I looked up and I saw a huge ball of fire, and then I smelled the stench of kerosene and sulfur."

TAM airlines determined Wednesday that 186 people were on the Airbus-320, including 162 passengers, 18 TAM employees and a crew of six. Ninety badly charred bodies, along with the "black box" flight data recorder, had been pulled from the wreckage by midmorning, firefighters said.

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva declared three days of national mourning for Brazil's second major air disaster in less than a year. In September, a Gol Aerolinhas Inteligentes SA Boeing 737 and an executive jet collided over the Amazon rain forest, killing 154 people. Wednesday's crash now replaces that tragedy as Brazil's worst air disaster.

Presidential spokesman Marcelo Baumbach said it was premature to declare a cause, but critics have warned for years of the danger of such an accident when large planes land in rainy weather at Congonhas airport, Brazil's busiest.

In 1996, a TAM Airlines Fokker-100 crashed shortly after taking off from the same airport, killing all 96 people on board and three on the ground. In February, a federal court briefly banned takeoffs and landings of three types of large jets because of safety concerns. An appeals court overruled that, saying the safety concerns weren't sufficient to outweigh the severe economic ramifications for Brazil.

A320s were not covered under the judge's ban, and the TAM jet that crashed was a relatively recent model, said William Voss, president and CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation in Alexandria, Virginia.

"So there are no red flags coming up, it sounds like a straightforward runway overrun," Voss said.

The single-aisle, twin-engine plane, delivered in 1998, had logged about 20,000 flight hours in some 9,300 flights, Airbus said.

Still, rainy conditions were a particular concern at the airport. Globo News television played tapes of conversations between flight controllers and pilots complaining about slick conditions on the runway days before the latest accident.

Tuesday's TAM flight was landing on Congonhas' main 6,362 feet-long (1939 meter-long) runway, which was recently resurfaced but not grooved to provide better braking in rainy conditions. There were plans to regroove the surface by the end of July.

In France, Airbus said it was sending five specialists to Brazil to help investigate and would provide "full technical assistance" to France's bureau for accident investigations and to Brazilian authorities.

Emergency workers searching for bodies used a crane to maintain the structure of the destroyed TAM building.

The airline released a list of most of the people on the flight early Wednesday morning, but did not specify their nationalities. Congressman Julio Redecker was among those on the flight

"Tam expresses its most profound condolences to the relatives and friends of the passengers who were on Flight 3054," the company said.

Before the list was released, distraught family members gathered in Porto Alegre and Sao Paulo for any news. Lamir Buzzanelli said his 41-year-old son, Claudemir, an engineer, had called him from Porto Alegre to say he was in the plane and about to return from a business trip. "I've been calling him on his cell phone, and all I get is his voice mail," Buzzanelli said, his eyes tearing up.

Despite the crash, authorities reopened the airport Wednesday morning, using an auxiliary runway.

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