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Brazilian Prosecutors Call for Airport to Suspend Flights During Crash Investigation

Brazilian prosecutors are seeking to suspend flights at the country's busiest airport while investigators study a plane crash that killed at least 189 people. In Miami, VOA's Brian Wagner reports aviation officials have pledged to address safety concerns, without halting service at the key airport.

Federal prosecutors filed a motion to halt operations at Congonhas airport one day after the TAM Airlines jet flew off a runway and burst into flames. Prosecutors asked a judge to suspend flights until aviation officials can ensure that it is safe to continue operations at the airport, in the heart of Brazil's largest city, Sao Paulo.

Jose Carlos Pereira, the president of Brazil's aviation authority, Infraero, said halting flights at the nation's busiest airport would be an excessive and radical measure.

He said any suspension would affect the 20 million passengers who use that airport, and said it could trigger chaos in the airline industry.

Flights resumed at Congonhas airport early Wednesday, but aviation officials say the runway involved in the crash will remain closed until an investigation is complete.

TAM airline executives said the Airbus 320 aircraft was in perfect condition and the pilots were experienced.

Recovery efforts were continuing at the site where the plane left the runway, crossed a busy city street and crashed into a cargo terminal and gas station. Officials say the bodies of most of the victims have been recovered, but work is slow because of fears that the heavily damaged buildings may collapse.

Brazilian investigators are working with experts from the plane's maker, Airbus, as well as officials from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board.

Jim Hall, a former chairman of the U.S. agency, said the probe into the crash will consider numerous factors, including rainy conditions at the time of the accident.

"They will be looking at the runway, the runway surface," said Hall. "They will be looking at weather information that was available, weather radar [and] the transmissions between the [control] tower and the aircraft."

Earlier this year, airport officials resurfaced the runway used by the TAM flight, but they said workers had not yet cut grooves into the pavement to help channel rain water.

Hall said he has flown into Congonhas airport, and said he recalls that it has a very short runway and is located in a dense urban area. He said Brazilian officials have been aware of safety concerns for some time.

"The main concern is the length of that runway, and a lack obviously of any type of adequate safety area at the end of the runway," he added.

Hall says one possible safety measure is placing a surface called "crushable concrete" at the end of the tarmac to help stop runaway airplanes. He said several U.S. airports use the material that allows a plane's wheels to sink in, and slow the aircraft down.