Cuenca marks the 40th anniversary of the worst air disaster in Ecuador history

Jul 12, 2023 | 2 comments

Private memorial services were held Tuesday in at least three Cuenca churches on the 40th anniversary of the most deadly air disaster in Ecuador’s history. On the morning of July 11, 1983, all 119 passengers and crew on a Tame Air flight from Quito to Cuenca died when their Boeing 737 crashed into a mountain less than a mile from Mariscal La Mar Airport.

Part of the wreckage of the Tame jet that crashed on July 11, 1983, near Recaurte.

An investigation by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, Ecuador civil air authorities and the Boeing Corporation blamed the disaster on “gross pilot error.”

According to records, pilot Jorge Peña and his copilot Juan Ortiz, were making a visual approach to Mariscal La Mar on a clear morning when they encountered a foggy area northeast of Cuenca. Based on the voice recording, the pilots were unconcerned with visibility since conditions were clear at the airport and they assumed they would be out of the fog within a matter of minutes. They contacted the airport control tower for permission to land, which was granted.

According to the investigation, the pilots were experimenting with the aircraft controls since it was only their third flight on the two-year-old 737 and were unaware they were flying dangerously low. In addition, the crew were engaged in a “heated discussion” about a labor dispute between personnel and the government-owned airline. The voice recording indicates the pilots ignored the first ground proximity system warning and only began a sharp climb after receiving the second warning.

It was too late, and the aircraft crashed into Bashún Mountain, near Recaurte, and burst into flames. Most of the aircraft fell into an adjacent ravine.

One explanation of why the pilots ignored the warnings was that Peña did not understand the English commands used in the 737 cockpit. Investigators dismissed it, however, because copilot Ortiz was fluent in English.

The runway of the Marsical La Mar Airport can be seen from the 1983 crash site of the Tame Air jet on a mountain in Recaurte.

Although some news reports claimed it took hours for rescue workers to reach the scene, Cuenca police and firemen later said they were at the crash site within 20 to 30 minutes. It was quickly determined that there were no survivors.

Family and friends waiting at the airport were told of the crash minutes after it occurred. In what was later described as an “inexplicable and horrible decision,” members of the Cuenca volunteer fire department transported many of those in the airport waiting area to the crash site, just outside of Recaurte.

“Many of the people arrived at the crash scene at the same time as police and emergency workers,” said a Quito civil air investigator. “It was a terrible sight, with families looking through the burned rubble for sons and daughters, fathers and mothers. There were heartbreaking scenes of people sitting on the ground, crying beside bodies that were burned and mangled.”

Several city employees were fired as a result of the decision to transport people to the crash site.

According to the newspaper El Mercurio, 63 of the dead were residents of Cuenca.

In its closing investigation comments, the National Transportation Safety Board called the crash the result of “one of the worst cases of pilot negligence ever seen.” The comments continued: “This was a senseless loss of life that could have easily been avoided.”

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