The Hercules C-130 transport plane crashed into a residential area in the city of Medan on Tuesday, shortly after taking off from an airbase in the city on Sumatra island.
Buildings were severely damaged, cars reduced to flaming wrecks and the plane itself was almost completely destroyed, with the mangled tail the only part of the 51-year-old aircraft still recognisable after the disaster.
Many of those on board the flight to an island off Sumatra, which was carrying 122 people, were believed to be servicemen and women and their families. The air force has said no one survived the crash.
It is unclear how many people died on the ground, but a steady stream of bodies has been arriving at a Medan hospital as rescuers pull them from the disaster scene, and police said Wednesday that the total death toll now stood at 142.
New witness accounts emerged of terrifying scenes, with one man describing how the plane flew low and then smashed into a building, producing “flames as high as four storeys”.
“Everyone panicked and screamed,” Tumpak Naibaho, a 27-year-old tyre repairman, told AFP, adding there were hundreds of people in the area when the crash happened around midday.
“I thought it was a terrorist attack or something… I saw one man whose clothes were on fire, staggering out of the debris. His face was covered in blood, dust and ash.”
“I had never felt so scared in my life, I thought I was going to die,” he added.
People in the area said several buildings were thought to have been destroyed in the crash, although it was not clear whether there were people inside at the time. The plane hit a massage parlour and hotel when it came down, according to officials.
Buildings ruined, cars destroyed
Rescuers were Wednesday continuing to clear debris, which spread over a large area, helped by two earthmovers, as hundreds looked on.
One end of a three-storey building had been left in ruins, with the walls blown away, leaving only the soot-blackened interior visible. An overturned, destroyed car could also be seen among the debris.
Tuesday’s accident was the sixth deadly crash involving an Indonesian air force plane in the past decade, according to the Aviation Safety Network, and prompted Indonesian President Joko Widodo to call for an overhaul of the military’s ageing equipment.
“I have ordered the defence minister and the armed forces chief to conduct a fundamental overhaul of the management of the military’s defence equipment,” he said.
Indonesia also has a poor civil aviation safety record — the latest disaster came just six months after an AirAsia plane crashed into the Java Sea, killing all 162 people on board.
Officials were working to identify the victims so far recovered, with police saying that so far 62 people had been identified.
Most of those were from the armed forces as they could be easily recognized from their uniforms, and officials were now working to identify others.
It is not clear what caused the crash but the aircraft asked to turn back just after take-off, and air force chief Agus Supriatna has said engine trouble may be to blame.
However he also insisted the ageing aircraft was in good condition.
The plane took off at 12:08 pm from the airbase and crashed in the city about two minutes later, about five kilometres (three miles) from the base, according to the military.
Medan is the biggest Indonesian city outside the main island of Java and a major economic centre.
It was the second time in a decade that the city has suffered a fatal plane accident. A Mandala Airlines domestic flight crashed shortly after take-off in 2005, killing at least 150 including passengers, crew and people on the ground.
That crash happened on the same street as Tuesday’s disaster. – AFP