The Boeing 737-800 was en route from Istanbul to Amsterdam carrying 134 people when it suddenly lost speed and fell out of the sky about two miles short of the runway at Schiphol Airport, investigators said.
The jetliner broke into three pieces upon impact: the fuselage tore in two near the cockpit and the tail was ripped off. Despite the catastrophic impact, the wreckage did not burn and scores of people walked away.
Survivors say the flight seemed to be on a normal approach, reports CBS News correspondent Mark Phillips. An announcement from the flight deck said the plane was at two-thousand feet, moments from landing.
Survivor Huseyin Sumer said he crawled to safety out of a crack in the fuselage.
"We were about to land, we could not understand what was happening, some passengers screamed in panic, but it happened so fast," Sumer said on Turkish NTV, adding that the crash was over in 5 to 10 seconds.
Another survivor, Jihad Alariachi, said there was no warning from the cockpit to brace for landing before the ground loomed up through the mist and drizzle.
"We braked really hard, but that's normal in a landing. And then the nose went up. And then we bounced ... with the nose aloft," she said, adding that she and her sister scrambled out an emergency exit.
More than 50 people were injured, about half of them seriously.
That so many survived seemed due to the relatively low impact speed, to the water-logged field on which the plane landed and to the fact there was no fire, leading to speculation the plane may have had some sort of fuel problem, reports Phillips.
"We can't decide that because there was no fire, that there was no fuel. It's just one more ingredient that would lead you to believe that perhaps there wasn't enough fuel in the airplane - nothing left to burn," said CBS News aviation expert Harley Carnes.
The fact that the plane, having reached its destination, would have used up most of its fuel, also lessened the chances of a fuel-driven fire. Authorities would not say whether the plane sent out a distress call before the crash.
"The fact that the plane landed on a soft surface and that there was no fire helped keep the number of fatalities low," Turkish Transport Minister Binali Yildirim said, adding that it was "a miracle" there were not more casualties.
The head of the Dutch Safety Authority, Pieter van Vollenhoven, said the plane appeared to have lost speed before crashing.
"You see that because of a lack of speed it literally fell out of the sky," he told NOS radio after visiting the crash site.
Investigators said two pilots and an apprentice pilot were among the dead. Hours after the crash, emergency crews still swarmed around the cockpit, where the pilots' bodies were later removed.
The plane's flight data recorders were recovered and were to be analyzed by experts.
Experts say crashes involving modern airliners are more survivable due to engineering advances that have resulted in strengthened structures and fire retardant technologies used for cabin seats and furnishings, as well as better emergency training of cockpit and cabin crews.
The most dramatic example of passenger survival was the Hudson River landing last month of a US Airways Airbus A320 that lost engine power when it struck a flock of birds. All 155 passengers and crew lived despite the watery landing.
As with Wednesday's crash, most of the survivable accidents have occurred at or near airports, and in most cases, the pilots maintained control, maneuvering to soften the final impact.
"What's notable about all those is that we've seen a number of recent-model aircraft involved in accidents that have been survivable," said William Voss, a former Federal Aviation Administration official and president of the independent Flight Safety Foundation based in Alexandria, Va.
"Decades of lessons have obviously been applied to cabin design and its survivability, and the cabin crews are doing their jobs on evacuation," Voss said.
At first, Turkish Airlines said everyone survived Wednesday's crash. But Michel Bezuijen, acting mayor of Haarlemmermeer, later reported the fatalities. He initially said 135 people were on board, but changed that figure to 134.
Six of the injured were in critical condition, 25 were seriously hurt and 24 had slight injuries, health authorities said. Survivors were taken to 11 hospitals including an emergency field hospital set up by the military in the central city of Utrecht.
There were 72 Turks and 32 Dutch citizens on board, the Turkish ambassador to the Netherlands, Selahattin Alpar, told the Anatolia news agency.
Jim Proulx, a Boeing spokesman, said the company was sending a team to provide technical assistance to Dutch safety officials as they investigate. He declined to comment on media reports that at least four Boeing employees were on the plane.
Investigators will explore a wide range of possible causes, ranging from weather-related factors to insufficient fuel or loss, navigational errors, pilot fatigue or bird strikes. Experts say initial results could be made public soon because of the sophistication of the Boeing 737-800s black box, although the full report will likely not be ready before the end of the year.
Weather at the airport at the time of the crash was cloudy with a slight drizzle.
Candan Karlitekin, the head of the airline's board of directors, told reporters that visibility was clear at about 5,000 yards. "Some 550 yards before landing, the plane landed on a field instead of the runway," he said, adding the plane's documents were checked and there was no maintenance problems.
Turkish Airlines chief Temel Kotil said the captain, Hasan Tahsin, was an experienced former air force pilot. Turkish officials said the plane was built in 2002 and last underwent thorough maintenance on Dec. 22.
Turkish Airlines has had several serious crashes since 1974, when 360 people died in the crash of a DC-10 near Paris after a cargo door came off. More recently, in 2003, 75 died when an RJ-100 missed the runway in heavy fog in the southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir.
Boeing's 737 is the world's best-selling commercial jet, with more than 6,000 orders since the model was launched in 1965.
The 737-800, a recent version of the plane, has a "very good safety record," said Voss. "It has been involved in a couple of accidents, but nothing that relates directly back to the aircraft."