Published October 18, 2011
MAUN, Botswana -- Rescuers ferried buckets of water from a swamp to douse a raging fire when a light aircraft carrying 12 people on a luxury safari crashed shortly after takeoff in Botswana, killing the British pilot and seven tourists from France, Switzerland and Britain, an official and rescue workers said Tuesday.
One tourist jumped from the plane as it was crashing to the earth but suffered such severe injuries that he died at a nearby airport where he was evacuated, hospital superintendent Dr. Maxwell Mungisi said Tuesday.
The crash occurred Friday in the southern African nation's remote Okavango Delta, according to spokesman Modipe Nkwe of the Civil Aviation Authority. He said two French tourists and two Botswana citizens survived.
Swiss Foreign Ministry spokesman Pierre-Alain Eltschinger said initial indications were that the plane crashed because of a fire on board. But he added that "the exact circumstances are the subject of an investigation."
Nkwe said Tuesday the Ministry of Transport was investigating. His agency had issued a brief statement announcing the crash on Friday, with few details. It was unclear why it took three days to announce the fatalities.
Photographer Tshepo Jenamo said some of the wreckage was still smoldering when he documented the scene 24 hours after the crash. His photograph shows only the tail end intact of the aircraft, a Cessna 208B Grand Caravan single turboprop. The rest is charred debris amid African thorn trees with rubber burned off the plane tires by the intensity of the blaze.
Britain, France and Switzerland confirmed they had citizens aboard the flight. In a misunderstanding over accents, Nkwe was understood to have said three Swedes had been killed, but he clarified Tuesday that the three were from Switzerland.
Nkwe said rescuers from his Civil Aviation Authority as well as soldiers and police flew swiftly from Maun, the biggest town in the delta, to the scene of the crash at Xakanaxa bush airfield, arriving while the aircraft still was on fire.
"They put off the fire," Nkwe said.
He said rescuers in Maun were called from the airfield by workers of Moremi Air, operators of the chartered aircraft.
Two of the rescuers told a reporter that they had to go to a safari camp about one mile away to fetch about 20 buckets, which they then filled with water from a swamp pond 65 feet from the blazing plane. They said they formed a line of people to pass the buckets of water down to douse the fire. Only then could they pull out the bodies of those who perished, apparently in the fire.
The plane had been headed for a luxury safari camp on Pom Pom island, a site in the heart of the delta that is famous for its birds and wildlife, including elephants.
Moremi Air CEO Sue Smart said in a statement Monday that the company has grounded its entire fleet while investigations proceed. She said the pilot was the company's general manager and "our most seasoned pilot with over 12,000 hours of flying." On Tuesday she said she could not identify the pilot by name as his extended family still has to be notified.
The seven tourists who perished were a British man, three French women, two Swiss women and a Swiss man, Nkwe said. At least some of the survivors were airlifted for medical care to Johannesburg in neighboring South Africa.
Botswana's Monitor newspaper quoted one local survivor, vehicle inspector Bernard Lottering, as saying that after the aircraft crashed to the ground he kicked out a window and got out.
As the plane caught fire, he managed to pull out his colleague and dragged two other passengers to safety, apparently the French. The paper said it interviewed Lottering on his hospital bed in Botswana.
The paper quoted Mungisi, superintendent of Letsholathebe Hospital in Maun, as saying that the bodies of those who died were "burnt beyond recognition" and that only DNA tests could identify them.
France's Foreign Ministry said one French survivor remains hospitalized in Johannesburg with burns, though doctors say her life is not in danger. It said the other French survivor has returned home.
Britain's Foreign Office confirmed that two British nationals died in the crash, and Switzerland's Eltschinger confirmed the deaths of three Swiss citizens. Both said relatives were receiving consular support.