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Scattered plane parts and a solitary shoe

Rescuers began the grisly task of removing bodies from the wreckage of a Kenyan Airways plane lying in swamps of south-west Cameroon on Monday after a crash that killed all 114 people on board.

There were seven South Africans on board the doomed flight.

Luc Ndjodo, prosecutor for the West African country’s economic hub, Douala, said rescuers had recovered the first bodies, more than 48 hours after the Boeing 737-800 vanished from radar screens in a violent storm shortly after it took off from the city for Nairobi.

It took 36 hours to find the wreckage of the almost new aircraft 20km south-west of Douala, after reports from local fishermen of hearing a loud bang and a disturbance in the sea.

The plane was carrying a crew of nine from Kenya and 105 passengers from 26 other countries.

Ndjodo said investigators were at the scene, trying to ascertain the reasons for the crash. ”There are no chances of finding any [survivors] under the circumstances,” he said. ”There is a crater filled with water and a clearing; then, buried in the mud, there are scattered plane parts and debris.”

An Agence France-Presse reporter at the crash site saw metal fragments spread over hundreds of metres, with only a piece of landing gear, a portion of a wing and a few shredded seats as a reminder that all the debris once was an aircraft.

Fragments of clothing and objects also stuck out of the mud. A teddy bear here, a life preserver there, a food tray, and further away a solitary shoe. And strewn everywhere, body parts: feet, arms and other pieces of human flesh impossible to identify.

A Kenya Airways spokesperson based in Johannesburg, Glenn Lewington, said he had met the families of the seven South Africans aboard the aircraft on Monday. ”They are devastated … there is no way to describe how they feel; no one can actually understand what these people are going through,” he said.

Several South African businesses — including MTN, Chevron SA and ABB SA — have confirmed that they had employees on the flight. Not all were South African citizens. Infrastructure company Group Five confirmed on Monday that three of its employees had also been aboard.

”We are extremely sad to announce that Mr [Claes] Andersson from Group Five, as well as Mike Grossett, a director of Jones and Wagener, and Conrad van der Westhuizen, a director from Single Destination Engineering, were on board the Kenyan plane,” said chief executive Mike Upton in a statement. ”Our thoughts and prayers are with their families in this terrible time.”

The three men were coming home after a site visit for a new power-plant project in West Africa.

Cause of the crash

Theories abounded on the cause of the crash, especially given the fact that the plane was hardly six months old. Cameroonian aviation officials said flight KQ 507, which links Côte d’Ivoire’s main city, Abidjan, to the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, via Douala disappeared from the radar screens on Saturday shortly after taking off in a violent storm.

A Cameroon Airlines plane, due to fly out at the same time, delayed its departure.

A Kenyan aviation official on Monday said the plane could have been struck by lightning.

The rescue work was being conducted under tight security with police guarding the site and helicopters hovering overhead. Dozens of villagers armed with machetes had helped cut an emergency path to the wreckage, as Cameroonian troops cordoned off the area.

Kenyan officials said they were very satisfied with efforts by Cameroonian authorities. ”It was very well planned in terms of search and rescue and I do not believe the flight could have been found any earlier,” Kenyan government spokesperson Alfred Mutua said.

Kenya Airways said France had lent helicopters and the United States National Transportation Safety Board and Boeing had sent experts to Cameroon.

An additional Kenya Airways support team of 14, including counsellors and French speakers, headed on Monday for Cameroon. Kenya Airways CEO Titus Naikuni said he would leave for Douala early on Tuesday.

Kenya Airways officials said that crisis centres in Nairobi and Johannesburg continued to be operated on 24-hour basis. The airline said it would transport relatives, from Kenya or elsewhere, to Cameroon and provide accommodation for up to two next-of-kin per passenger.

Until the crash, Kenya Airways had three 737-800s in its fleet and Naikuni has said the other two will not be grounded.

Kenyan officials said the flight’s pilot, Captain Francia Wamwea Mbatia, had more than 8 000 flying hours, and that the company had been flying to Douala for years without problems.

In January 2000, a Kenya Airways Airbus crashed into the sea after taking off from Abidjan airport, killing 169 passengers and crew.

Air France-KLM owns a 26% stake in Kenya Airways, which prides itself on its reputation as a reliable African air company. — Sapa-AFP, Sapa

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Francesco Fontemagg
Francesco Fontemaggi
Francesco Fontemaggi is a diplomatic correspondent for Agence France Presse in Washington, D.C. His work has also appeared in MSN, Business Insider, Channel 7, Seven News, Yahoo, Le Figaro, and France 24

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