RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Two days after Brazil suffered the worst air disaster in its history, the government of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva seemed paralyzed Thursday as criticism mounted that it failed to prevent an accident waiting to happen.
Government officials have so far tried to duck blame about Tuesday's crash, in which an Airbus 320 operated by the Brazilian airline TAM skidded off a rain-slicked runway at Congonhas airport in the city of Sao Paulo and barreled into a nearby gas station and cargo terminal. At least 189 people died in the resulting explosion.
Lula has remained conspicuously silent about the tragedy, while military officials — who oversee civilian aviation in Brazil — have insisted that they were not at fault. No concrete actions have been taken, beyond closing the runway where the accident occurred. The auxiliary runway at Congonhas, the country's busiest airport, was opened to flights on Wednesday.
On Thursday night, Brazil's top television newscast reported that the plane's right reverse thruster had stopped working July 13. TAM confirmed the problem, the Globo newscast said, but said the plane was operational even without the thruster working.
Video shot from airport cameras showed the plane speeding down the runway about four times the normal velocity. Many have speculated that the pilots were trying to take off again.
Meanwhile, public anger is growing about why the government hadn't adequately fixed known problems at the airport, including runway flooding during rainstorms that makes landing there notoriously difficult. Federal prosecutors in Sao Paolo asked a court to close down the airport until investigations are completed.
In the 16 months leading up to Tuesday's accident, at least five planes had skidded off the main runway, without producing casualties.
"This government is terrified," said political analyst Alexandre Barros. "Lula should have already said something to the country, but the reality is he has nothing to say."
The crash followed a Sept. 29, 2006, mid-air collision over the Brazilian Amazon, which killed 154 people. Air traffic has been in turmoil ever since as flight controllers limited the number of planes they monitor, sparking widespread flight delays and cancellations.
Despite evidence that flight controllers were at least partially to blame in the September crash, Air Force Brig. Ramon Borges Cardoso said no major changes had been made to the control system.
"The government didn't do anything after the first crash, and so far they aren't doing anything after this latest one," said journalist Ivan Sant'Anna, who has written about the country's aviation system. "Sometimes it seems like Brazil doesn't have a government."
That lack of action has come at rising cost, as the volume of air traffic in Brazil grows by 12 percent a year and overwhelms the country's air infrastructure. Officials admit Congonhas and Sao Paulo's international airport Guarulhos have been pushed beyond capacity. More than 17 million passengers pass through Congonhas a year, although it has only one major runway.
Such pressures may explain why Brazilian officials reopened Congonhas' repaved main runway last month before grooves had been cut into the asphalt to channel off water. Many speculate that water on the runway had caused the Airbus to skid, a theory government officials have rejected.
According to news reports, airline representatives had pressured airport authority Infraero to reopen the runway before the grooving was done. An Infraero spokesman said Thursday the agency was following orders from air force commanders.
Jorge Carlos Botelho, president of an airline workers union that represents flight controllers, said the country's air crisis can be resolved only by transferring the system to civilian control. He blamed military resistance to reform for aggravating the problem.
"That runway should not have been used during rains without the grooving, but the profits of the airlines are more important now than safety," Botelho said. "There's no transparency in the system we have now, and that's why these problems continue."
On Thursday, Lula called a meeting of ministers to create a way out of the crisis and will reportedly speak publicly for the first time Friday night. He notably didn't invite Defense Minister Waldir Pires to the meeting.
Finance Minister Guido Mantego said Thursday that the government had responded properly to the crisis, despite public perceptions otherwise.
"If we look at the action of Infraero in the last years, practically all Brazilian airports were reformed and expanded," Mantego said. "It is a robust plan."
Such actions weren't enough for federal prosecutors in Sao Paulo, however, who requested Wednesday night that Congonhas be closed until investigations were completed. A federal judge has yet to decide whether to order the closure.
Federal prosecutor Marcio Schusterschitz placed the blame for the air crash firmly on aviation officials, despite speculation that the Airbus' pilots may have been to blame because they may have landed too quickly.
"What we want is that accidents don't happen again," the prosecutor told Brazilian reporters Thursday. "The accident unhappily showed that more than money and rhetoric, the airport of Congonhas kills."