Spanish and German officials have begun an investigation that seeks to explain a tragic plane crash that claimed the lives of at least 153 people. It was one of Europe's worst air tragedies in decades.
The exact cause of the crash is unknown
Of the 162 passengers and 10 crew on board the Spanair jet bound for Las Palmas in the Canary Islands on Wednesday, Aug. 20, 19 people survived with severe injuries, according to Spain's Transport Minister Magdalena Alvarez.
Two black boxes were found at the crash site and were to be examined Thursday.
Three days of official mourning have been declared by Madrid’s regional government, while people gathered at the central Plaza de Cibeles square for a minute’s silence at midday on Thursday.
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has visited several of the 19 survivors, while King Juan Carlos has extended his condolences to relatives of those who perished in the tragedy.
Zapatero interrupted his vacation to travel to the scene of the accident. "The government is overwhelmed, very affected, as are all Spanish citizens, by this tragedy," he said
One engine of the Spanair MD-82, which also had a Lufthansa flight number, reportedly caught fire as the jet attempted to take off from Madrid-Barajas airport at 2:45 p.m. local time Wednesday.
Experts were divided on whether the fire in the engine was the cause of the accident.
Two black boxes were found at the scene of the crash
Spanish media said the plane's take-off had been delayed for one hour while an exterior temperature gauge was repaired.
A Spanair official, Javier Mendoza, said Thursday that an air intake valve on the plane had reported overheating under the cockpit before takeoff, the press agency AP reported. Technicians fixed the problem by turning it off, he said, adding that this was an accepted procedure..
German investigators join in
Because the flight was a code sharing agreement with German carrier Lufthansa, Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) is assisting Spanish authorities in identifying the victims of the accident.
Spain had accepted an offer by the German government overnight, a BKA spokeswoman said.
"We are anxious for more information on whether German citizens are involved," she said.
The nationalities of the victims and survivors have not been confirmed, though Spanish media reported that four Germans, two Swedes, a Chilean and a Colombian were aboard the plane.
Lufthansa said initially that seven passengers had checked in on the German carrier's flight number and that four of them were Germans. The German embassy in Madrid said it was in close contact with the Spanish authorities.
Condolences from across Europe
The 19 people who survived were severely injured
Words of sympathy poured in Wednesday from political leaders across Europe. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was shocked by the number of dead and injured and had sent a message to Zapatero, said her spokesman.
"At this sad moment, Italy, united with your country by traditional bonds of friendship, feels particularly close to the Spanish people, Italian President Giorgio Napolitano told Spanish King Juan Carlos.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown were also among those who expressed their deep sadness.
The accident was Spain's worst air disaster since 180 people were killed when a Colombian aircraft crashed in Madrid in 1983. The deadliest plane crash in the history of civil aviation also occurred in Spain, when two Boeing 747s collided at Tenerife airport on the Canary Islands in 1977 -- 583 people were killed.