KINSHASA, Congo – A cargo plane smashed into a residential neighborhood in Congo's capital just after take-off from the international airport Thursday, killing at least 25 people and engulfing homes in flames.
Three houses near a market in Kinshasa's Kingasani neighborhood were destroyed in the crash, and smoke filled the sky for hours, according to an Associated Press reporter on the scene. Citing police reports, U.N. peacekeeping spokesman, Michel Bonnardeau said 25 people were killed and two survived — including a mechanic and an air hostess who was in critical condition.
Civil aviation chief Alphonse Ilunga said the plane's flight manifest indicated 16 people aboard, but an unknown number of others boarded before takeoff.
It was not immediately known what caused the crash, or how many people living in the area were also killed and wounded.
There appeared to be little left of the plane. Two detached wheels sat on top of a house, a twisted propeller stuck out of the earth, and charred strips of the plane's exterior lay on the ground covered by debris and broken gray concrete blocks. As firefighters struggled to douse the flames, a chaotic crowd of onlookers, including wailing friends and relatives, gathered.
"The plane clipped several treetops and hit the roofs of three houses, crashing onto its back with its tires in the air," said Japhet Kiwa, who lives in the impoverished neighborhood. "There was a huge explosion."
Laurent Kongolo said he and several other people pulled a woman, burned head to toe, out of the burning wreckage of one of the homes that had been hit. "She was between life and death," he said. "It was horrible."
Red Cross workers hauled unrecognizable charred bodies out of the rubble in plastic sacks. Ambulances raced between the crash site and a hospital in Kinshasa.
Airport officer Appo Ilunga said the Antonov 26 went down shortly after takeoff around 10:30 a.m. (0930 GMT).
Russia's ITAR-Tass news agency reported the plane had a Russian crew. "According to early reports, all people on board were killed. There are also casualties among people at the market," ITAR-Tass said, adding that the plane belonged to Congolese carrier Africa One. The five-year-old Congolese company is one of a host of African airlines banned from flying in the European Union because of safety concerns.
UN-funded Radio Okapi cited witnesses in the area as saying the plane damaged 10 houses on three streets in Kingasani, about five kilometers (three miles) from Kinshasa airport.
In 1996, an Antonov 32 turboprop crashed seconds after takeoff from the airport, skidding across a busy street and plowing into a crowded open-air market. That crash killed at least 300 people, one of the worst air accidents in Congo's history.
Ilunga, the airport official, said the plane had just taken off and was en route to central Congo. Radio Okapi said the aircraft was headed to Tshikapa in the province of Kasai Occidental.
Congo has experienced more fatal air crashes than any other African country since 1945 — accounting for 41 of the 326 fatal accidents recorded on the continent in that time, according to the Aviation Safety Network, an independent database of crash data.
Cargo planes in Congo are often flown by experienced pilots from former Soviet states, but the aircraft are often old, ill-maintained and overloaded.
In August, the government suspended the licenses of a number of private local airlines and suspended the national director of civil aviation after an Antonov 12 carrying 3 tons over the recommended capacity crashed in the eastern region of Katanga, killing 14 people.
Few passable roads traverse Congo after decades of war and corrupt rule, forcing the country's deeply impoverished people to rely on often-unsafe boats and planes to move around.