Brazilian firemen try to control the fire that broke out after a TAM airlines plane crashed during landing at the Congonhas Airport in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Photograph: Paulo Pinto/EPA
At least 200 people were believed dead last night after a passenger plane crashed in the heart of South America's largest city, Sao Paulo.
The accident, apparently the biggest in Brazilian history, happened at 6.45pm local time when an Airbus-320 belonging to the Brazilian company TAM reportedly skidded on the runway while landing at Sao Paulo's domestic airport Congonhas.
The plane, which was carrying 176 people, then slid over one of the city's busiest roads during rush hour before crashing into a warehouse located next door to a petrol station and exploding.
Television images showed flames and thick black smoke bellowing out from the warehouse and emergency services surging towards the scene. Sixteen deaths had been officially confirmed last night.
During a visit to the crash site, however, Sao Paulo's governor Jose Serra told reporters there were unlikely to be any survivors.
"I was told that the temperature inside the plane was 1,000 degrees, so the chances of there being any survivors are practically zero," he said. "The only thing that was left of the plane was the tail."
Sao Paulo fire-chief, Manuel Antonio da Silva Araújo, also said there would be few survivors.
"There are 200 dead people in there," he told Sao Paulo's mayor Gilberto Kassab during a visit to the crash site according to the local newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo.
As the fire continued to rage last night and firefighters desperately searched for survivors Brazil's president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva called an emergency meeting in Brasilia. Argentina's president Néstor Kirchner reportedly telephoned the Brazilian leader to express his condolences.
The plane - flight number 3054 - was arriving in Sao Paulo from the southern city of Porto Alegre when the accident happened.
In a statement the airline confirmed that a TAM plan had "suffered an accident on the runway of the Sao Paulo airport" but said it could not confirm the "extent of the damage or of possible injuries suffered by the passengers or the crew."
The airline did not immediately release a list of those onboard, but it is believed that a well-known politician from the Social Democratic Party was among the victims. According to Globo News the doctor Douglas Ferrari, working at the crash site, said he saw at least 20 dead bodies in the ruins.
"I was surprised with a ball of fire coming towards my window," the journalist Deisy de Oliveira who lives opposite the crash site told Globo TV news. "I ran."
"The atmosphere is nervous, of consternation," she added, on the verge of tears.
Adriano Assi, another witness, said: "It's scary for people who live here to have an accident so close. Sao Paulo can't live without this airport ... But for those who live it here gives us something to think about."
Marco Campos de Oliveira, who lives near the accident scene, said: "I was at my computer ... and I felt the explosion and saw the light of the flames on the buildings."
Congonhas is Brazil's busiest airport used by around 47,000 passengers each day. Eighty per cent of all domestic flights pass through Congonhas on their way to destinations across Brazil and South America.
But the airport has been the scene of several accidents in recent months, involving planes skidding on the runway. In May the runway was closed for rebuilding after a series of smaller accidents. On Monday a smaller plane skidded on the runway but there were no injuries.
Yesterday's accident happened during heavy rain. Critics have warned for years that such an accident was possible at the airport and that the runway was too short for larger planes and authorities recently introduced a policy closing the runway during heavy rain.
Sao Paulo's governor refused to speculate on the causes of the accident but suggested the plane had attempted to take off again after skidding on the runway.
"The runway is filmed the whole time. When we have the images we will have a clearer idea of what happened. From what we can tell the plane made an attempt to take off again," Mr Serra said.
The accident comes 10 months after 154 people were killed in the worst plane accident in Brazilian history. The accident took place over the Amazon rainforest after a collision between a Brazilian passenger plane belonging to the budget airline Gol and an executive jet whose passengers included an American journalist from the New York Times. The jet managed to land safely.
The Gol crash caused an unprecedented crisis in air travel in Brazil - referred to in Brazil as the "Air Black Out" - triggering long airport delays, concerns about air safety and strikes among flight controllers.