Prosecutors Want to Close Airport After Brazil’s Deadliest Plane Accident

Brazil firefighter rescue bodies after TAM disaster Brazil's Federal Public Prosecutor's Office has filed a civil action requiring  "the suspension of all landings and takeoffs on the main and secondary runways" of the Congonhas airport, in São Paulo, the place of the country's deadliest plane accident, Tuesday night, when an aircraft exploded upon landing killing all 186 people aboard and a still-unknown number of people on the ground.

The airplane, an Airbus A320 from Tam Airline, flight JJ 3054, left Porto Alegre, in the south, a 5:16 and landed in São Paulo at 6:45 pm.

The legal action is signed by three prosecutors who believe the accident was caused by the conditions of the airport's runway, which is being rebuilt. The document requests that the main São Paulo airport and the country's busiest, "do not operate until safety conditions have been guaranteed and all doubts raised by the accident have been removed."

In a note the prosecutors say that "the accident in itself, due to its magnitude, justifies immediate action by the Federal Public Prosecutor's Office in order to try to avoid that any reckless situation be carried on, so that the interests of life preservation and citizenry be given priority."

Federal prosecutors had already tried unsuccessfully to get a preliminary order on January 24 to shut down the airport. At that time, they argued that Congonhas main runway should be closed while the airport underwent repairs. The action asked that all flights be diverted to two nearby international airports: Cumbica in Guarulhos and Viracopos in Campinas. In February, the Prosecutor's Office once again tried to close Congonhas.

In October 2006, the prosecutors had already requested that bank secrecy be lifted for a former president as well as three directors and an ex-manager of Infraero, the state-owned company in charge of administering Brazil's main airports. All of them were suspect of having taken part on a corruption scheme, that overbilled the projects to modernize and expand the airport.

The day after Brazil's biggest air tragedy the Infraero could not explain why Congonhas's main runway continued in operation even after two near accidents on Monday, July 16, when a small plane from Pantanal Airline and another TAM's Airbus A320 had also had problems,  losing control due to the wet airstrip.

Armando Schneider Filho, an Infraero superintendent, restated that "Congonhas' s runway is safe" and that it could not be closed before the causes of Monday's mishaps were looked into.

Now, however, before any cause can be found by the federal police, that airport authority has decided to shut down the runway until July 20. After that the airport will only operate in dry weather. In rainy days, planes would have to use the secondary runway that has the grooving, which hasn't yet been applied to the new rebuilt airstrip.

The superintendent didn't blame anyone for the accident and maintained that the Infraero acted correctly when it didn't shut down the runway after Monday's skiddings. "The runway is within international standards and within standards accepted worldwide." he said. "We didn't know for sure what had happened to the Pantanal's jet. We could not close the São Paulo runway just based on an assumption."

Schneider seemed annoyed that reporters would come back again and again to the question of the lack of grooving in the runway, which according to some experts was the main cause of the accident. "The grooving doesn't increase attrition," he answered. "It only helps to drain the water." He also told reporters that many airports don't have this kind of extra protection.

Brazil's Cenipa (Center of Investigation and Prevention of Aviation Accidents) believes that it will be able to conclude in 10 months the inquiry on the causes of the crash although this kind of probe generally takes one year and a half or more. For air brigadier and Cenipa's chief, Kersul Filho, people won't have to wait for the inquiry's conclusion, however, before adopting measures to prevent similar accidents.

Kersul Filho informed that the Airbus's black box is already in the United States and that transcriptions of the data should start Monday. The investigative work, he explained, should not start before the Brazilian team who went to the US to accompany the transcription work returns to Brazil. They are expected back on Wednesday, July 25.

The journalists' insistence that Kersul Filho explain why the accident occurred led the brigadier to comment: "The questions that you ask are the same questions that we ask ourselves. If we knew the answer the investigation would have already been finished by now."

Reporters also wanted to know if the pilot had tried to take off again after noticing that the landing hadn't been successful. His answer: "Only the probes will answer that. But we can say that he had an atypical speed for that stretch. If the airplane had a slow speed it would have fallen into the avenue."

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