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Colombia survivors: A normal flight, then a crash on the runway

By Arthur Brice, CNN
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Survivor recounts plane crash
  • A pilot says a 'great sinking' caught the plane as it landed
  • The crash was the first sign that something had gone wrong, survivors said
  • The Aires Airlines Boeing 737-700 crashed in the predawn hours Monday
  • One passenger died, and more than 120 were injured

(CNN) -- Aires Airlines Flight 8250 was seconds away from landing at San Andres airport on a small island off the coast of Colombia. The pilot had turned on the seat belt sign and told passengers to stay in their seats. Passengers could see rain and lightning outside their small cabin windows, but nothing was amiss. Everything seemed calm. Normal. Routine.

Then a hard, violent crash as the Boeing 737-700 smacked into the runway. The plane started to break apart, and sparks flew as metal ground against concrete. Seats came loose from their moorings and tumbled about the cabin. Passengers could see the runway and the rainy predawn sky through the gaping holes left in the sheared fuselage. Some of them fell to the ground, still strapped into their seats.

Survivors of Monday's plane crash that left one person dead and more than 120 injured describe nearly two hours of normalcy followed by minutes of sheer terror.

"Everything was going well," Heriberto Rua told Radio Caracol. "When I felt something, it was the crash."

Another passenger, Juan Carlos Hurtado, said everything was fine until the moment of landing about 1:49 a.m. (2:49 a.m. ET).

Video: Closer look at plane crash
Video: Pilot: Crash cause unlikely lightning
  • Colombia
  • Air Disasters

"No sooner had the rear wheels touched down when it started to break apart," he told Radio Caracol. "It broke apart, and the seats were torn loose. We ended up seeing the road, and it started to catch on fire. There were many people wounded, screaming."

Industrial engineer Jose Ricardo Ramirez said he was ejected from the ruptured plane.

"The truth is that I can't say whether the plane got to roll down the runway," Ramirez told Radio Caracol. "Simply, when we fell down, we ended up on the pavement, chairs and all."

Ramirez said his first inclination was to unbuckle his seat belt and then undo his wife's restraint.

A couple and their three children were traveling behind him, Ramirez said. He noticed that a plane seat was lying on top of the man. He lifted the seat off him and then noticed that his own wife's face was covered in blood.

"I immediately grabbed her and tried to get her away because flames were coming from the plane," Ramirez said. "We tried to get away, but because my wife had a broken knee, I had to help remove her.

"A police patrol arrived minutes later, and they helped us and brought us to the clinic, where we were tended to as soon as possible."

Two residents of the metro Atlanta, Georgia, area were among those seriously injured.

Carolina Bellino said she and her husband, David, suffered fractured backs. She cannot move, Bellino said.

"He is worse than mine," she told ABC's "Good Morning America" on Tuesday.

Bellino, who said she is seven or eight weeks pregnant, recalled that she prayed until rescuers arrived.

"It's just like a nightmare, but I'm thankful because I'm alive," she said.

"It's a new beginning for us. You know you realize you can lose your life in just 20 seconds."

Colombian authorities say they are investigating whether the plane may have been hit by lightning or been buffeted by a severe downdraft.

One of the two pilots stood outside the wrecked plane shortly after the crash and described to a police videographer the flight's final moments. CNN affiliate Caracol TV played the recording Tuesday.

"We were caught in a great sinking as we reached the runway, as our wheels touched down," said the unnamed pilot, his face bloodied. "It threw us out. It threw us out. Nature is very strong."

The pilot paced back and forth before the camera, recounting his ordeal as crews worked on the plane just a few yards away.

"It grabbed us with everything it had," the pilot said. "I said, 'Landing' and cut, and when I was cutting, I started to level off, and I felt that the plane was going straight (down).

"I pulled [on the stick]. I pulled. I pulled. And the plane kept on going, kept on going. It was when we said, 'Landing.' When there's nothing left to do."

Survivors said they were unaware that anything had happened to the aircraft until the violent impact.

Ramirez, the industrial engineer, said he had seen lightning outside his window as the plane approached the airport.

"[But] I didn't feel any explosion," he told Caracol. "It's a miracle from God. Thanks to God we are all alive."

Hurtado also said he was unaware of any lightning striking the plane, as reported by some officials on the ground.

"That's what people say," Hurtado said. "Others [say] that the landing gear did not go down. But I don't know what happened. Only that it was horrible."