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18 Killed In Mexico Plane Crash

Eighteen people are believed dead after the midair explosion of a DC-9 jetliner in central Mexico, a toll that could have been worse if the bulk of the passengers had not deplaned at previous stopovers.

TAESA flight 725 had taken off Tuesday from the western border city of Tijuana with 91 passengers aboard. After stopping in Guadalajara and Uruapan, it had only 13 passengers and five crew members aboard as it headed to Mexico City, 180 miles to the east.

Shortly after 7 p.m. -- minutes after taking off -- it fell from the sky.

Inspector Juan Alfonso Lara of the Michoacan state civil protection agency said the plane apparently exploded in the air. He said witnesses saw a brilliant light in the sky and the debris fall in the mountains 6 miles southwest of Uruapan.

He said rescue crews were in the area, but there was no chance of finding anyone alive.

Â"It was completely destroyed,Â" he said.

Officials reported that search crews had begun to recover body parts.

Agustin Gutierrez, TAESA's state manager in Michoacan, said the plane apparently had some kind of malfunction, nosedived and crashed into an avocado plantation, the government news agency Notimex reported.

The plantation caretaker, Felipe Guzman, said the rear of the plane was on fire as it hit the ground and exploded, Notimex said. Â"After that, there were other explosions,Â" he said.

The cause of the accident is under investigation. TAESA spokesman Eduardo Cacho, speaking at a news conference, said the airline was not aware of any maintenance problems during the day. He also said he had no information about communications between the crew and the flight control tower.

Â"We don't have definitive information and we don't want to speculate,Â" he said at a news conference.

Cacho said he did not know if any foreigners were aboard, though two passengers had foreign-sounding names.

In the Mexico City airport, crying relatives were led into a hangar where airline officials were assisting them and offering to take them to Uruapan.

Uruapan, a city of 250,000 dating back to the 16th century, is known for its avocado production. Tourists frequently stay there when visiting the Paricutin volcano, 20 miles to the west. The volcano is famous for having risen from a cornfield in 1943.

In Seattle, a spokeswoman for Boeing Co, Susan Davis, said that Mexican authorities had requested that the company send a representative to help the investigation, which Boeing would do.

Boeing acquired McDonnell Douglas, the successor to Douglas Corporation, the company that built the DC-9 between 1965 and 1982. The DC-9 is a plane which carries about 100 passengers on mostly short-haul flights.

The plane that crashed in Mexico on Tuesday was delivered in 1970 and had been through several operators, before being operated for about the last year by Taesa, Davis said. It had logged 58,000 flight hours o 59,000 flights.

TAESA was founded in 1989 as an executive air charter service and it expanded to commercial operations in 1991, using cut-rate fares to challenge established carriers Mexicana and Aeromexico.

Â"Taesa is in mourning due to this accident, after 350,000 flights and 645,000 flight-hours without a single accident,Â" said Cacho.

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