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Spain mourns victims of deadliest plane crash in 25 years

As Spain mourned the victims of its worst air disaster in nearly 25 years, investigators Thursday tried to find out what caused a Spanish airliner with reported engine trouble to crash on takeoff from Madrid, killing 153 people in a maelstrom of fire and smoke.

Only 19 people survived Wednesday's crash of a Spanair plane bound for the Canary Islands vacation resort, Development Minister Magdalena Alvarez said.

Spain has declared three days of mourning. Flags in Madrid flew at half-staff and the king and queen planned to visit a makeshift morgue where relatives waited to claim the remains of their loved ones.

Outside town hall, the mayor of Madrid joined hundreds of people in observing five minutes of silence, a noon vigil that was also observed at Madrid's Barajas International Airport.

Rescue workers have described a hellish scene of charred bodies and wreckage after the plane crashed while struggling to get airborne, burned and disintegrated.

One Spanish couple was three minutes late checking in and missed the flight.

Ertoma Bolanos said he found out about the crash when the family of his girlfriend Almudena called to say they had seen TV footage of it.

"We had no idea what had happened," he told the newspaper La Vanguardia. "My mouth dropped open."

Spanair says there were 20 small children and two babies aboard. Only three children - ages 6, 8 and 11 - survived the crash, the Madrid regional health department said.

Spanair says it does not know the cause of the disaster. It says the pilot of the U.S.-built MD-82 airliner initially reported a problem with a gauge that measures temperature outside the plane. This delayed the takeoff while the problem was repaired, and then the plane crashed at the end of the runway during the second takeoff attempt.

Rescuers rushed the few survivors to hospitals, while emergency workers shrouded the dead in white sheets. One body lay on burned grass, an arm and a leg poking out.

The Spanish newspaper El Pais says one of the plane's two engines failed and may have caught fire during takeoff. It did not give the source of its report.

La Vanguardia said witnesses saw the plane's left engine explode and catch fire before the aircraft went down.

Experts said however that this kind of plane is designed to fly with one engine in an emergency, raising questions over whether something else may have caused the crash.

From Washington, the National Transportation Safety Board said it will send a team of investigators to assist.

Spanair has had other recent engine problems. The company confirmed Thursday that an MD-82 was forced to make an emergency landing Saturday on a flight from Lanzarote in the Canary Islands to Madrid because of problems with both engines. The plane landed in the nearby island of Gran Canaria, the destination of Wednesday's flight.

A company official speaking on condition of anonymity said he did not know if the same plane was involved in both cases. After the crash, the company has eight MD82s.

The morgue has been set up at Madrid's main convention center - the same facility used for relatives to identify bodies after the March 11, 2004 Islamic terror attacks that killed 191 people on Madrid trains.

Alvarez's office said Thursday that at least 25 bodies have been identified so far. She said the process could take several days because many bodies were burned beyond recognition and forensic teams are using DNA techniques.

Spanair chartered a plane in the Canary Islands to fly in relatives of people killed in the crash.

Some mourners spent the whole night at the morgue.

The accident was Spain's worst air disaster since 1983, when a Boeing 747 operated by the Colombian airline Avianca crashed near Madrid on landing approach, killing 181 people. In 1985, an Iberia Boeing 727 crashed near Bilbao in the Basque region, killing 148 people.

The deadliest disaster in aviation history occurred in Spain in 1977. Two fully loaded Boeing 747s collided on a runway in the Canary Islands and a total of 583 people died.

Spanair is Spain's second-largest airline, after Iberia. It is a money-loser, though, and owner SAS put it up for sale more than a year ago; it failed to find a buyer.

A cost-saving plan calls for withdrawing older, less fuel-efficient planes such as some of its MD-82s, eliminating some routes and laying off a third of its 3,000-member workforce.

Spanair has published the names of those aboard the plane but not the nationalities.

In Germany, Lufthansa said it issued tickets to seven people who checked in for the flight and four of those were from Germany. It was unclear whether they were German citizens.

Sweden's Foreign Ministry said two Swedes were on the plane. It said one was at a hospital but the other was unaccounted for.

France's Foreign Ministry says there were three French victims among the dead.

The Finnish Foreign Ministry said one Finnish woman living Sweden was among the injured.