Plane crashes in DRC town

A passenger plane carrying 85 people crashed into a crowded neighbourhood in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) town of Goma on Tuesday, and only six survivors have been found so far, government officials said.

Smoke engulfed the charred ruins of the aircraft, which appeared to have broken in two when it slammed into the rooftops of about 10 cement homes just outside the airport, destroying them instantly. Soldiers kept onlookers away as United Nations peacekeepers helped douse flames at the crash site.

Officials said they had no information on casualties among residents of the area.

Julien Mpaluku, Governor of the province, said there were 79 passengers on board and six crew members.

“We have already picked up many bodies—dozens of bodies.
There are a lot of flames, which makes it difficult to know if the bodies we are picking up are those of passengers of the plane or else passers-by or people that lived in the area where the plane crashed,” Mpaluku said.

The plane faltered shortly after take-off and plummeted into the market neighbourhood of Birere, located just beyond the runway, the governor said. The runway used to continue into the neighbourhood, but was partially blocked by lava from a 2001 volcanic eruption in Goma, a town located 1 100km east of the capital, Kinshasa.

“The plane appears to have missed its take-off and crashed in a populated neighbourhood,” said Mpaluku. Among the survivors is one of the pilots, he added.

Employees at the Goma headquarters of World Vision, an international aid group, said they saw the plane plow through houses and shops in the highly populated market area.

“Smoke was rising from the plane,” said Christian Kilundu, a spokesperson for the Goma office of World Vision. “As fire extinguishers were trying to put out the flames, I spoke to a priest who had been pulled from the wreckage. He was disoriented and had no idea what had happened.”

A witness in Goma, the capital of eastern Nord-Kivu province, said the plane came down on a busy market street. “Half of the plane has broken off. There is a fire towards the back. People are coming with buckets of water to put out the fire. The UN is here trying to keep back the crowds,” the witness said. “It destroyed a building. The two buildings next door are blackened.”

Banned airline

The DC-9 passenger plane is owned by Hewa Bora, a private airline based in the country, Mpaluku said. It was headed to Kinshasa, said Gauthier Iloko, the second-in-command at the Goma airport.

Just last Friday, the European Union added Hewa Bora Airways to its blacklist of airlines banned from flying in the European Union, without specifying a reason.

On Tuesday, EU spokesperson Michele Cercone said she had no information on Hewa Bora specifically but she said that all airlines based in the DRC are banned from EU airspace.

“That is because there is a general lack of effective control by the civil aviation authorities there to monitor and maintain minimum technical standards” for airplanes, Cercone said.

The EU’s current list of banned airlines shows 50 airlines based in the DRC, including Hewa Bora.

Cercone said that until a few weeks ago, one Hewa Bora plane was allowed to fly to Europe under a special exemption deal, but that has expired.

The McDonnell Douglas DC-9 is a twin-engine, single-aisle passenger jet that first went into service in 1965. It usually seats between 80 and 135 passengers, depending the configuration.

DC-9s have been involved in a number of accidents over the decades. On January 1 2007, a Northwest Airlines DC-9 aborted its take-off and went off the runway at General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee. The accident was due to an explosion in one of the engines. Of the 104 people aboard, only one was injured.

The DRC, a vast country the size of Western Europe with only a few hundred kilometres of paved roads, has one of the world’s worst air-safety records. There were eight plane crashes in the country last year, including one in the capital, Kinshasa, in which an Antonov 26 plunged into a crowded neighbourhood, killing more than 50 people.—Sapa-dpa, Reuters, AFP, Sapa-AP

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