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Fatal plane crash probe launched

Air accident investigations were trying to piece together the final minutes of a plane crash that left six people dead.

Among those killed at Cork Airport was Brendan McAleese, a relative of Ireland's President Mary McAleese and two other Northern Ireland businessmen.

The 18 seater turboprop crashed in thick fog on its third attempt to land.

Sources close to the investigation named the pilot as Jordi Gola Lopez from Spain and English co-pilot Andrew Cantle, believed to be from York.

Another of those killed in yesterday's crash was Pat Cullinan, originally from Omagh, Co Tyrone, and a partner in leading accountancy firm KPMG in Belfast.

Among the victims was Captain Michael Evans, Deputy Harbour Master in Belfast. Another British citizen also died.

Grief stricken relatives of those killed are expected to begin bringing their bodies home.

Aviation experts from Dublin and the UK are to join forces to examine the crash site, wreckage and the final minutes of the Manx2 flight from Belfast. Spanish authorities are also expected to be involved.

Mr McAleese, who owned the Central Laundries business in Cookstown, Co Tyrone, was a cousin of Dr Martin McAleese, the husband of President Mary McAleese. He was married with a young family.

Six other people were injured - two miraculously walking away from the mangled wreckage - when the 18-seater turboprop crashed on landing in thick fog.

Mrs McAleese and Taoiseach Brian Cowen expressed their shock and sadness at the tragedy - the worst on record at an Irish airport.

"I am especially conscious of the pain being experienced tonight by all of the bereaved as one of the deceased was Brendan McAleese, my husband Martin's cousin," the President said.

"His family have lost a fine and loving husband, father, son and brother, and their awful grief is replicated in the lives of all those who lost their loved ones in today's crash.

"No words can ease their pain but I hope they draw some small comfort from knowing that our thoughts and prayers, both here and in homes throughout the country, are with them at this darkest hour.

"To the survivors also we send our heartfelt wishes for a quick and full recovery from the immense trauma they have experienced."

The daily scheduled morning flight from George Best Belfast City Airport was due to land after 9am but, after two aborted attempts to touch down in thick fog, the Fairchild Metroliner crashed after a third descent.

The pilot had tried to touch down on runway 17 in low visibility before attempting the same landing strip in the opposite direction, only to have to abandon again and go for a third approach.

Aviation weather reports said visibility on the ground was down to about 300m at 9.30am and improved slightly to 400m by 10am. Half an hour later the fog had lifted with visibility of 1,800m.

The Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) said the plane crashed at 9.52am and an engine caught fire. Within four minutes emergency crews had put out the blaze and prevented it spreading to the cabin.

The Taoiseach, the British Ambassador and Bishop of Cork and Ross John Buckley were among those to offer condolences at the scene.

Four survivors were seriously ill, in intensive care and being treated for chest and spinal injuries and broken limbs.

Belfast Harbour Master Kevin Allen said colleagues were devastated at the death of Capt Evans.

"He was phenomenally committed to his job and to his colleagues, helping ensure that the harbour stayed open to shipping every hour of every day.

"Michael was tremendous fun and unique to work with, and was well-known and respected throughout the shipping industry," Mr Allen said.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife, Andrea, and family."

Terence O'Rourke, KPMG's managing partner, paid tribute to his colleague, who had been with the firm for more than 20 years.

"Pat Cullinan was an extremely talented professional and a real gentleman," Mr O'Rourke said.

"He was highly regarded by all of his colleagues and clients and his tragic and untimely death has come as a shock to everyone in the firm, especially to those in our Belfast office and to all who knew Pat as an exceptional friend and colleague."

Professor Stephen Cusack, chief of emergency medicine at Cork University Hospital, said he was shocked to see passengers alive when he arrived at the scene to set up a field hospital near the wreckage.

"Given the amount of damage that was done it was quite remarkable that half of the people on board survived," he said.

Noel Hayes, chairman of Manx2.com, said it was the first accident in the airline's five-year history.

"This has been a terrible day and our thoughts are, first and foremost, with the families of those who lost their lives, and those who were injured," Mr Hayes said.

The six survivors included Donal Walsh, a volunteer for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students in Ireland.

Director of the organisation Adam Jones said he received a reassuring text message from Mr Walsh, who had been returning from Christian events in Belfast.

"He miraculously walked away from this tragic accident, escaping with minor injuries. He is in hospital at the moment receiving follow-up treatment," a spokesman for the organisation said.

The text said: "I am fine with very minor injuries all things considered. Thank God."

The only woman on the flight, who was from the UK, survived.

Another of the injured was from Glanmire, Co Cork, and two others from Northern Ireland.

© Press Association