Plane Crashes in Populated Neighborhood in Congo, Dozens Killed

A Congolese jetliner carrying around 85 people failed to take off Tuesday from an airport in this eastern town, crashing at high speed into a busy market neighborhood at the end of the runway, officials said.

Casualty figures varied widely. An airline official said 60 people had survived, but local officials said dozens of bodies were pulled from the wreckage, though it was unclear if they had been passengers or not.

Employees at the aid agency World Vision, which has an office less than half a mile from the crash site, said the plane "failed to leave the ground," plowing instead "through wooden houses and shops in the highly populated Birere market."

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The plane appeared to have been "totally flattened" by the impact, said Rachel Wolff, a U.S.-based spokeswoman for the international aid organization who has been in contact with her colleagues in Congo.

A former pilot who survived the crash, Dunia Sindani, gave a similar account in an interview broadcast over a local U.N. 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.

Earlier, conflicting accounts said the plane crashed just after takeoff.

The tragedy 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.

At the crash site, smoke and flames 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 after U.N. peacekeepers helped douse flames at the crash site.

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

The plane was operated by the private Congolese company, Hewa Bora, and was headed to the central city of Kisangani, then the capital, Kinshasa. Hewa Bora's Dirk Cramers said 53 passengers and seven crew were taken from the site and were at local hospitals.

Julien Mpaluku, the governor of the province, said there were 79 passengers onboard 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 as it tried to take off, the governor said. The runway used to continue into the neighborhood, but was partially blocked by lava from a 2001 volcanic eruption in Goma, a town located 1,100 kilometers (700 miles) east of the capital, Kinshasa.

"The plane appears to have missed its takeoff and crashed in a populated neighborhood," said Mpaluku.

Among the survivors is one of the pilots, he said.

"Smoke was rising from the plane," said Christian Kilundu, a spokesman for the Goma office of World Vision, an international aid group. "As fire extinguishers were trying to put out the flames, I spoke to a priest who had been pulled from the wreckage, he was disorientated and had no idea what had happened," he said.

World Vision employees who visited the scene of the crash said they saw at least eight bodies. Hours afterward, the market stalls where women had been selling their wares earlier in the day were still in flames, said Wolff.

Just last 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, European Union 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.

The DC-9 plane has 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.