Flight 965: Challenges Of The Search

Laverne Guillen describes the obstacles which the USAR and local efforts faced in responding to an airplane crash in the mountains of Colombia.


In the mountains of Colombia just outside the city of Buga, American Airlines Flight 965 smashed into Cerro San Jose at approximately 9:45 P.M. on Dec. 20, 1995. The aircraft, a Boeing 757, was traveling from Miami to Cali, Colombia, with 164 persons on board (156 passengers and eight crew members...


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In the mountains of Colombia just outside the city of Buga, American Airlines Flight 965 smashed into Cerro San Jose at approximately 9:45 P.M. on Dec. 20, 1995. The aircraft, a Boeing 757, was traveling from Miami to Cali, Colombia, with 164 persons on board (156 passengers and eight crew members). After the accident, five survivors were rescued but one later died in a hospital. The remaining 160 people died.

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Photo courtesy of Metro-Dade Fire Rescue Urban Search and Rescue Team
A Colombian rescue crew joins Metro-Dade Fire Rescue's Urban Search and Rescue team in covering an area near a portion of the jet's fuselage.

Prior to this disaster, the Metro-Dade Fire Rescue Department's Special Operations Division had met with American Airlines, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Dade County Aviation Department to discuss a response plan for aircraft accidents in Central America and the Caribbean region. Even though a plan had not been formalized, Metro-Dade Fire Rescue's Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) team responded to Buga at the request of American Airlines.

The USAR team was activated on Dec. 23, 1995. The team's composition and size were based on the limited scope of the mission, logistical support from American Airlines and the assumption that the team would train local personnel to use the equipment.

The team consisted of a task force leader, a rescue squad officer, four rescue specialists, a logistics/communications specialist and a medic/safety specialist. All members were paramedics and cross-trained in team functions.

Team members and equipment arrived at Cali International Airport at 11 P.M. local time. The equipment cache was secured in a cargo shed at the airport, and the team was deployed to Buga the following morning, Dec. 24, via helicopter.

The recovery operation was based at the Palace Artillery Battalion Base in Buga, where airline representatives briefed the team on the work accomplished to date, site access and security precautions in effect. Helicopters were being used to ferry bodies to Buga's temporary morgue.

3_97_flight2.jpg
Photo courtesy of Metro-Dade Fire Rescue Urban Search and Rescue Team
Metro-Dade Fire Rescue crew members assist Buga firefighters in rigging a rope system to move large pieces of wreckage.

The initial impact of the plane was on the east side of Cerro San Jose (ridge) approximately 250 feet below the summit (elevation 9,200 feet), with wreckage from the aft section strewn from that point to the summit. The balance of the fuselage was spread on the west side of the ridge from the summit to an 8,500-foot elevation. The main cabin, where most victims had been recovered, was at this altitude. Four bodies were still missing and feared trapped under large sections of the fuselage.

The Buga base was located at 3,200 feet, and the forward base was in a farm at the base of the ridge at 7,900 feet. There were only two ways to reach the forward base from Buga a helicopter could make a five-minute trip in good weather but the forward base was in a valley often covered by clouds. The alternative was a 21/2-hour drive by truck up the mountainside on a winding dirt road.

Once the forward base area was reached, access to the plane's main cabin was by helicopter to an improvised landing zone at the summit of the ridge and a 700-foot walk down a steep, muddy rain forest (taking 45 minutes to one hour) or by foot climbing 600 feet through the same environment. The latter took from 11/2 to three hours, depending on altitude acclimatization. The only means of descent from the crash site back to the base camp was on foot.

Security Concerns

Because the area of the crash site is a guerrilla activity zone, a heavy Colombian military presence was required. No overnight stays were allowed at the crash site or at the base camp. All personnel were restricted to road travel during daylight hours.

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