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Swiss plane crash toll rises to 24

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Wreckage visible in the woods in Basserdorf, near Zurich airport  


ZURICH, Switzerland -- Investigators are sifting through evidence for clues as to the cause of the Crossair crash in which 24 people have died.

The flight 3597 from Berlin came down in poor weather conditions as it followed the flight path into Zurich International airport on Saturday.

The pilot and his co-pilot were among the victims, along with the singer Melanie Thornton who had been picked to be the voice of Coca-Cola in an advert.

Ten bodies were recovered quickly by rescue workers but the other 14 victims were declared dead after a lengthy search, police said.

Nine people had managed to walk free from the wreckage by escaping from the tail end of the plane which had been severed by the impact. Two of them are in a critical condition.

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The survivors, talking from their hospital beds, described the experience as having been similar to a "horror film."

Myriam Wettstein was told Tele24: "It was like in a horror film, a nightmare."

She said the plane had been engulfed by flames, but that she had clambered out into the snowy forest through a hole.

"I had no time to be scared, I was just very cold. I thought 'I have to get out of here, the plane can explode'."

It is the third tragedy to have hit Switzerland during the past couple of months.

Switzerland's President Moritz Leuenberger said: "We are absolutely speechless after being dragged from one catastrophe to the next.

"Our grief is mixed with bitterness because it never seems to end."

Officials refused to speculate on the cause of the tragedy, but initial reports indicate the pilot, who had more than 20 years flying experience, had been coming in too low over the woodland.

Police said there was no indication the flight had been attacked.

Rescue workers retrieved the flight recorders from the partially intact cockpit of the four-engine British-made Jumbolino Avro RJ-100. Company officials said it was the first crash involving this type of plane.

Thirty-three people were on board on the 97-seater, five crew and 28 passengers.

A Zurich police statement said 10 Swiss citizens had been on the plane, and 13 Germans -- including Thornton who has dual German-U.S. citizenship.

Three Israelis, including two leading scientific researchers, two Dutch nationals and one each from Canada, Ghana, Austria, Sweden and Spain were also on board.

The Passion Fruit pop group -- comprising two Dutch women and a German citizen of Spanish origin were among the passengers.

"It's a horrible scene and my feelings are indescribable," said Crossair Chief Executive Officer Andre Dose after visiting the crash site.

Witness Franz Brunner, a local government official, told state television: "I was walking the dog when I saw the plane.

"It appeared to be flying low. Then the sky turned bright orange, as if there was a sudden ball of fire."

Airport officials said communication with the flight crew had been normal until the plane suddenly disappeared from the radar screen while trying to land on a runway used for night flights under a new agreement to limit flight noise over Germany.

The landing strip being used -- numbered 28 -- did not have a fully automated landing guidance system.

Dose added the plane, built by BAE Systems, formerly known as British Aerospace, had last been inspected on November 16 and a thorough maintenance operation had been planned for January 2002.

Swiss authorities suspended nighttime use of the runway following the accident, pending the investigation.

Switzerland had only just been recovering from the shock of three recent major incidents starting with the killing of 15 people, mostly town officials, in Zug after a disgruntled resident went on a shooting spree in the local parliament in September.

The following month, Swissair, which owns Crossair, was grounded.

Then came a head-on truck collision in the Gotthard tunnel which killed 11 people and closed the vital artery between northern and southern Europe.

Crossair's crash on Sunday was its second in two years. A Saab340 heading for the German city of Dresden crashed shortly after takeoff from Zurich in early 2000, killing all 10 people aboard.

Crossair is taking over parts of the Swissair operations in a complicated, government-financed bailout that is meant to be completed next spring.

Swissair flights were grounded briefly last month because of an inability to pay for fuel and landing fees.

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