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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Plane Crashes in Caribbean, 189 Thought Dead

PUERTO PLATA, Dominican Republic -- A charter jetliner carrying German tourists home from the Caribbean crashed into shark-infested waters off the Dominican Republic. There were no signs Wednesday that any of the 189 people aboard had survived.

Aircraft and boats searching the waters off the Dominican Republic's north coast spotted bodies, empty life rafts and debris scattered over five square kilometers. At least 79 bodies were recovered, Reuters reported, but divers were wary of entering the water.

There was no immediate information on the cause of the crash late Tuesday, but the Boeing 757 had been substituted at the last minute. The plane took off in light rain, then turned around. The pilot told controllers he was going to return to the airport because of a problem just before the crash, a Dominican official said Wednesday, Reuters reported. After the airport tower responded, the pilot said, "Stand by," but all radio communication with the plane was abruptly cut off.

The plane, built in 1985 and bound for Frankfurt and Berlin, was owned by a Turkish company, Birgen Air, and leased to a Dominican airline, Alas de Transporte Internacional.

The airline was shut down temporarily in 1993 after failing to meet international safety standards. The German government said the 757 was uninsured and had no permission to fly to Germany.

Airplanes, boats and helicopters from Florida, the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico headed to the crash site, 21 kilometers north of Puerto Plata.

U.S. Coast Guard Lieutenant Lincoln Benedict in San Juan, Puerto Rico, said pilots had spotted sharks in the area of the crash site.

"The area is shark-infested," Benedict said. "It obviously would hamper recovery of either survivors or bodies from the water."

There were no reports of survivors; four children had been aboard the plane.

Seas were calm as the search continued this morning off the coast of the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti.

Flight 301 took off from Puerto Plata International Airport late Tuesday night.

It reached an altitude of 2,100 meters, then apparently turned to the right as if to return before crashing, said Colonel Manuel Mendez, who supervises aeronautic regulations for the Dominican Republic's air force.

The German tour operator who chartered the plane said Alas' chief pilot told him by phone that he thought the plane may have gone down because lightning hit both engines. The pilot said he was basing his speculation on the weather conditions at the time of the crash and his own experience, tour operator Vural Oeger said, without giving the pilot's name.

German aviation officials said that reason was unlikely because modern airplanes are protected against lightning.

Oeger, of Hamburg-based Oeger Tours, said the airline switched planes from a planned Boeing 767 to a Boeing 757 shortly before takeoff because the 767's hydraulic pump was not functioning properly. He said Alas had only those two aircraft in service.

But spokeswoman Rosemarie Meichsner at Schoenefeld airport in Berlin said the planes had been switched because the flight was underbooked for a 767, which holds about 300 people. The 757 holds 224 passengers.

A total of 176 passengers and 13 crew members were on board Flight 301 when it went down. Eleven of the crew were Turkish and two were Dominican, Birgen said.

Polish radio ZET reported that parliament members Marek Wielgus and Zbigniew Gorzelanczyk were on the passenger list. The list released by Birgen Air included those two surnames but provided no more information.

"Our aim now is to help find out what happened, why it happened and what can be done to prevent something like that from happening again," Boeing spokesman Dick Kenny said.

The crash was the second involving a Boeing 757 in little more than a month. An American Airlines Boeing 757 crashed Dec. 20 as it approached Cali, Colombia, killing 160 people. A final determination of the cause of the crash could take months.

Meichsner said about 10 counselors and psychologists were at Schoenefeld airport to counsel the passengers' relatives. Thirty-four relatives had arrived by early afternoon, fire chief Klaus Walter said.

Skies were clear in Puerto Plata, a coastal resort 160 kilometers northwest of the capital, Santo Domingo. Clouds and rain squalls obscured the crash area offshore, but the U.S. Coast Guard said the rain did not seriously hinder rescuers.