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story.lead_photo.caption Relatives of those who died in Friday’s plane crash arrive at a morgue Saturday in Havana.

HAVANA -- The only three survivors of Cuba's worst aviation disaster in three decades were clinging to life Saturday, a day after their passenger jet carrying 113 people crashed in a fireball in Havana's rural outskirts.

In the first official death toll provided by authorities, Transportation Minister Adel Yzquierdo Rodriguez said 110 people had died, including five children. He also announced that a flight recorder from the plane had been located.

Maite Quesada, a member of the Cuban Council of Churches, announced that 20 pastors from an evangelical church were among the dead. They had spent several days at a meeting in the capital and were returning to their homes and places of worship in the province of Holguin.

Carlos Alberto Martinez, director of Havana's Calixto Garcia Hospital where the survivors were being treated, said doctors are always hopeful that their patients will recover, but he acknowledged that the three Cuban women were in extremely grave condition.

"We must be conscious that they present severe injuries," Martinez told a group of journalists. "They are in a critical state."

Cuban officials identified the women as Mailen Diaz, 19, of Holguin; Grettel Landrove, 23, of Havana; and Emiley Sanchez, 39, of Holguin.

Martinez said Sanchez was conscious and communicating, Diaz was conscious and sedated, and Landrove was in a coma.

Landrove's mother, Amparo Font, told reporters that her daughter is a flamenco dancer and engineering student on the verge of graduation.

"My daughter is an angel," Font said. "They have to save her."

Meanwhile, relatives of those who died gathered at a morgue in the capital, weeping and embracing one another, as investigators tried to piece together why the 39-year-old Boeing 737 went down and burst in flames shortly after takeoff Friday afternoon.

Cuban Transportation Minister Adel Yzquierdo Rodriguez told reporters Saturday afternoon that Cuba's national carrier, Cubana de Aviacion, had been renting the plane for less than a month under an arrangement in which Mexico City-based Damojh airlines was entirely responsible for maintenance of the aircraft.

Armando Daniel Lopez, president of Cuba's Institute of Civil Aviation, told the AP that Cuban authorities had not received any complaints about the plane in that month. He declined to comment further.

A Damojh employee in Mexico City declined to comment, saying the company would be communicating only through written statements. Mexican authorities said Damojh had permits needed to lease its aircraft and had passed a November 2017 verification of its maintenance program.

Late Saturday, Mexico's government released a statement saying its National Civil Aviation Authority will carry out a new "operational audit" of Damojh to see if its "current operating conditions continue meeting regulations, as well as collecting information to help the investigation."

Yzquierdo said it was routine for Cuba to rent planes under a variety of arrangements because of what he described as the country's inability to purchase its own aircraft because of the U.S. trade embargo on the island.

"It's normal for us to rent planes," he said. "Why? Because it's convenient and because of the problem of the blockade that we have. Sometimes we can't buy the planes that we need, and we need to rent them."

It was overcast and rainy at the airport at the time of Cuba's third major air accident since 2010, and state television said the jet veered sharply to the right after departing on the domestic flight to the eastern city of Holguin.

Eyewitness and salon owner Rocio Martinez said she heard a strange noise and looked up to see the plane with a turbine on fire.

"In flames, here it comes falling toward the ground, and it seems [the pilot] saw it was an area that was too residential and makes a sharp turn," Martinez said. "To avoid [the houses] ... to avoid a tragedy, because there would have been a massacre."

Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel said a special commission had been formed to find the cause of the crash.

Information for this article was contributed by Bert Wilkinson and Maria Verza of The Associated Press.

A Section on 05/20/2018

Print Headline: 3 crash survivors grave; 20 pastors among dead

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