Accounts of the Aerial Disaster in Havana / Ivan Garcia

Curious onlookers near the site of the accident (Reuters, from Diario de Cuba).

Iván García,22 May 2018 — Forty-eight hours after the tragic plane crash, the area where the Boeing 727-200 went down — the airliner had been leased by Cubana de Aviación from the Mexican company Global Air — is still cordoned off with yellow ribbon as dozens of crime scene specialists and civil aeronautics experts are examining the area.

Some of the investigators wear khaki pants or fatigues and white labcoats, a sign that they are from the military. Others are dressed in civilian clothes. Access routes to the railroad tracks and field where the disaster happened are guarded by two patrol cars.

Three farm houses commandeered by investigators provide storage for possible evidence and serve as a makeshift command center. It is not difficult to find people who want to tell their version of the story.

Luis Antonio, a native of Las Tunas who has lived for five years in the village of Mulgoba, points out that he has already done three interviews: “One for Univisión, one for a Chinese news agency and one for [Spanish news agency] EFE.”

“I work at a nursery relatively close to the scene of the accident,” he says. “It was noon, so people were going to lunch. I grabbed my lunch box, which had onion omelette, white rice, pea soup and boiled sweet potato. I sat down under a tree to eat. All of a sudden I heard a loud noise. When I stopped and looked up at the sky” — he points to a field to his left — “I saw the plane passing over the trees. It was giving off black smoke and rocking from side to side like a broken toy. I lost sight of it right before it crashed. It hit the ground about two hundred meters from where I was eating. I felt a blast of heat and heard a huge roar. I started running. I thought that thing was going to explode.”

The first ones to arrive at the site were locals who live along the road that connects Boyero Avenue with the town of Calabazar as well as workers, technical school and pre-university students on their way to class, and passers-by waiting at a bus stop a stone’s throw from the domestic terminal of José Martí International Airport.

“It was a carnival atmosphere, though there was a group of people who did take it seriously and acted responsibly. Others were holding mobile phones and filming everything. It was like they were going to a party. I stayed at the bus stop because I knew from the police show on television that the scene of accident must be preserved,” says Marta, a housewife who lives near the airport and was waiting for the P12 bus to Central Havana.

On the day of the crash dozens of homemade cell phone videos were already circulating on social media and among Havana residents. Catering to a morbid curiousity befitting a serial killer, videos with raw scenes of dismembered or burned bodies were being shared on IMO and Bluetooth devices.

A young woman seated at an outdoor café on Boyeros Avenue shows a video in which a man tries to steal a wallet from a victim who was on the flight to Holguín. “He was taking advantage of the chaos. The guy was trying to steal suitcases and money. A policeman who had just arrived to help the accident victims was the one who arrested the thief,” she says while explaining the video.

The first images broadcast on national television, whose minute-by-minute coverage was unusually extensive, and others like them circulating on social media show dozens of people contaminating the crash site.

Pedro, a custodian at an auto repair shop relatively close to the crash site, observes, “The police response was slow. The people who were trying to help the ones still alive weren’t knowledgeable about first aid so they didn’t handle the wounded properly. The ones who arrived the fastest were the firefighters, who have their own base at the airport. Then two ambulances came but I don’t think the first responders were prepared for this type of accident. If they had taken the injured to Calixto García instead of National Hospital, which isn’t fully equipped, perhaps another life could have been saved.”

What is powerfully striking in the case of traffic accidents, building collapses and destruction caused by hurricanes is that there are citizens whose first response is to record the events with their cell phones rather than help the victims.

Leidis, a primary school teacher, recalls, “Two or three years ago, a young woman was hit by a train near the Café Colón in Arroyo Naranjo. Instead of helping her, many of the people gathered around her were filming. Recently, a man had a heart attack in the street and a huge crowd formed around him, not to help but to shoot photos and make videos.”

The plane crash on Friday, May 18 in Havana poses new questions about the dreadful service provided by Cubana de Aviación, which is considered one of the worst airlines in the world.

Oscar, a former pilot for Cubana de Aviación, believes, “The company should call it quits and shut down. For years Cubana has not had the necessary stockpile of spare parts. If people knew how often pilots and maintenance crew have to improvise, they would not get on those flights.”

“It’s not just a matter of modernizing the fleet. It’s about having an adequate logistical base,” he says. “Some accidents, like the one in Sancti Spiritus eight years ago and the one this time, have happened with rented planes. There is something suspicious about these rentals that I hope this investigation will shine a light on. No one knows why or how officials at Civil Aeronautics contracts with airlines that almost no one has heard of. Rumors are that money is being paid under the table.

The fact is these are companies with very limited resources and outdated airplanes. We found out through an interview with a pilot who worked for this Mexican airline that they were flying with punctured tires and defective radar. One of our pilots reported on social media that seven years ago this same company had problems on a flight to Santa Clara. He filed his report but it was as though nothing had happened.”

Cubana de Aviación has been under scrutiny for some time. One or two days before the accident involving the Boeing 737-200, First Vice-President Salvador Valdés Mesa held a working meeting with officials of the Institute of Civil Aeronautics.

Delays are routine on domestic flights. Rolando Rodríguez Lobaina, a dissident activist and director of the independent media company Palenque Visión, recalls that on one occasion “the flight to Holguín was delayed by more than fourteen hours.”

Dania, who often travels by plane to the eastern provinces, notes, “When you fly on Cubana, you have to say a prayer before you take off. Those planes are scary. In addition to delays and abuse from employees, they don’t clean the planes. A few months ago, I was returning from Guántanamo on an AN-158 and had a seat near the wing. I could see through the window that some screws had come loose. I told the purser and he tried to reassure me by telling me, jokingly, not to worry, that fortunately they had extras in the plane. I hope this accident causes some heads to roll.”

The incident occured a month after Miguel Díaz-Canel became president. We will have to wait and see if the new president, in addition to focusing on the filth in Havana, focuses his attention on conditions at this erratic state-owned company, which is also in need of a thorough cleaning. Or he could just cover up Cubana de Aviación’s garbage with a blanket of silence, as has happened so far.