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Plane crashes at runway with 85 aboard

world Updated: Apr 16, 2008 01:37 IST
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A Congolese jetliner trying to take off on Tuesday with about 85 people aboard never left the ground, slamming instead into a busy market neighborhood at the end of a runway and bursting into flames. Witnesses reported dozens of bodies, but reports of fatalities varied widely.

Regional Governor Julien Mpaluku said up to 75 people had escaped only with injuries, though it was unclear whether they were passengers on the plane or passers-by.

Witnesses said dozens of bodies were pulled from the wreckage of the DC-9 plane operated by the private Congolese company Hewa Bora Airways.

Just last week, the European Union had added Hewa Bora to its blacklist of airlines banned from flying in the EU. The tragedy also underscored the dangers of plane travel in Congo, which has experienced more fatal crashes than any other African country since 1945, according to the Aviation Safety Network.

The aid agency World Vision, whose employees visited the crash site, said in a statement that the plane "failed to leave the ground," plowing "through wooden houses and shops in the highly populated Birere market."

A former pilot who survived the afternoon crash, Dunia Sindani, gave a similar account in an interview broadcast over a local UN radio station. The plane suffered a problem in one of its wheels - possibly a flat tire - and did not gain the strength to lift off, Sindani said.

At the crash site, smoke and flames engulfed the charred ruins of the aircraft as tractors, trucks and hordes of onlookers with shovels searched for survivors. UN peacekeepers sprayed the wreckage with water hoses, and soldiers kept some crowds back. The damaged cockpit and tail were visible, and in between was the fuselage - a burned, flattened and tangled mixture of rubble and debris and charred shops, Anna Ridot, of World Vision, said from the scene. Rescue workers carried out about 20 corpses from the plane, many on stretchers, Ridot said.

The plane appeared to have burst through a thin fence separating the runway from a market district of wooden houses and cement shops where sugar, avocados, flour and fuel are sold.

"I talked to a man who rescued seven people, including a 6-month-old baby, from an exit door. They were still conscious and moving," Ridot said. "But he couldn't go any further because he couldn't see anything. There was too much smoke." Earlier, conflicting accounts said the plane crashed just after takeoff.

Mpaluku said seven members of the flight crew were among the survivors. He said one of the surviving pilots said that one of the motors died as they taxied down the runway, and when the pilots tried to brake, a tire failed as well.

The Hewa Bora plane was headed to the central city of Kisangani, then the capital, Kinshasa.

Hewa Bora's Dirk Cramers said at least 53 passengers and seven crew members were taken from the site to local hospitals. Mpaluku said it was not clear whether the injured taken to hospital had been in the plane or on the ground when the accident occurred.

"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.

Goma's runway once continued into the neighborhood, but was partially blocked and effectively shortened by lava from a 2001 volcanic eruption in Goma, a town that is 1,100 kilometers (700 miles) east of Kinshasa.

In a statement, President Joseph Kabila expressed condolences to the affected families and called for an investigation into the cause of the crash.

On Friday, the European Union added Hewa Bora Airways to its blacklist of airlines banned from flying in the EU, without specifying a reason. On Tuesday, EU spokesman Michele Cercone said she had no information on Hewa Bora specifically but she said that all airlines based in the Democratic Republic of Congo are banned from EU air space.

"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 Democratic Republic of Congo, 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, but that has expired.

DC-9s have been involved in a number of accidents over the decades, including ValuJet Flight 2553, which plunged into the Florida Everglades on May 11, 1996.

On January 1, 2007, a Northwest Airlines DC-9 went off the runway at General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee. The accident was due to an explosion in one of the engines, forcing the pilot to abort takeoff. Of the 104 people aboard, only one injury was reported.