/ 16 April 2008

Bodies recovered from site of DRC plane crash

Rescue workers have recovered 21 bodies from the crash site in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where a passenger plane smashed into a crowded market on take-off, the chairperson of the airline said late on Tuesday.

But they have so far been unable to establish if any of the plane’s passengers were among the victims, or if all those killed were among those on the ground at the time of the crash.

The DC-9 jet crashed into the Birere market area of Goma, the capital of the eastern province of Nord-Kivu, at about 2.30pm local time and burst into flames.

”There are 21 confirmed dead, whose bodies have been recovered and taken to the morgue, but it’s not possible at the moment to say if any of these are passengers,” said Stavros Papaioannou, of Hewa Bora Airlines.

”There were 85 people on board: 79 passengers and six members of crew. The crew are all fine. We are trying to contact all the passengers. So far, we have contacted 53 of them, who are all right,” he added.

At least 70 injured have already been admitted to hospital in Goma, most of them local residents, according to a hospital official.

Earlier, various airport sources had reported ”dozens” dead in the disaster, which saw the plane crash-land into houses and a market not far from the end of the runway before bursting into flames.

The plane was destined for the capital, Kinshasa, but it was not clear how many passengers had already disembarked at Goma.

The original passenger list had 152 names on it, but many of these had got off before the crash, according to Thomas Okelo of the National Air Traffic Authority RVA in Goma.

It was the fifth fatal plane crash in the DRC since June last year. The last was in October when a cargo aircraft ploughed into a working-class district of Kinshasa and killed at least 50 people.

An Agence France-Presse journalist saw five survivors — two Congolese with a baby and two white people — being looked after by rescue workers.

United Nations fire crews were sent to the crash site in a bid to help put out the blaze, said Tahirou Diao, a spokesperson in Goma for the UN peacekeeping mission in the country.

One survivor told the DRC’s UN-sponsored Radio Okapi that a tyre burst during take-off and the pilot apparently lost control of the plane when he tried to brake.

After the plane had crashed, the survivor said he found an ”opening” in the wreckage and leapt out on to the ruins of a house that had been crushed.

The plane’s wings were ripped off in the crash and its undercarriage and tail wrecked, leaving only its nose visible in the debris amid the smell of smoke and fuel.

Witnesses saw a huge plume of smoke and flames rising from the area after the crash.

Investigators were on Wednesday to start probing the causes of the crash.

Tuesday’s accident came less than six months after an Antonov 26 from a private Congolese airline crashed in a district of Goma on October 4, killing at least 50 people.

The transport minister was sacked but there has still been no major overhaul of air transport safety in a country where most of the aircraft are ageing Soviet-era jets.

All the country’s airlines, about 50, have been banned by the European Union from flying in its airspace. — Sapa-AFP