MBANGA-PONGO, Cameroon – None of the 114 people aboard a Kenya Airways flight survived its crash into a thick mangrove swamp over the weekend, an official said Monday after returning from the water-filled crater left by the plane.
Asked whether anyone survived, Luc Ndjodo, a local government official in charge of the recovery effort, said: "No."
Ndjodo added he had surveyed the entire site, about the size of a soccer field, and saw no survivors: "I was there. I saw none."
The plane was submerged in murky, orange-brown swamp, with scraps of metal and plastic floating on the surface.
"We assume that a large part of the plane is underwater," Ndjodo said. "I only saw pieces."
Workers placed bodies and body parts found nearby on stretchers and carried them for 20 minutes — as close as the ambulances could get. Trees were chopped down and placed over puddles to make the walk easier. Members of the recovery team — some soldiers in camouflage and red berets, others barefoot villagers in shorts and T-shirts — used branches as walking sticks.
Much of the debris, some of it hanging from trees, was shredded beyond recognition. Some small items were intact — a white tennis shoe, a black purse of braided leather, an orange-and-blue length of cloth a woman might have worn as a skirt.
Earlier, Thomas Sobakam, chief of meteorology for the Douala airport, said the plane nose-dived into the swamp and disintegrated on impact.
"The plane fell head first. Its nose was buried in the mangrove swamp," Sobakam said.
The plane took off from Douala, Cameroon's commercial capital, and its wreckage was found just 12 miles from the town's outskirts. The cause of the crash remained unclear.
Among the passengers was Nairobi-based Associated Press correspondent Anthony Mitchell, who had been on assignment in the region.
While the site where the plane went down was not remote, it was in a dense and hard-to-access mangrove forest. The road was dirt track, its ruts filled with water Monday after overnight rains.
A U.S. Embassy official who saw the crash site from a plane Monday said it would have been impossible to find from the air without coordinates provided by searchers on the ground. He said searchers in planes saw nothing when they flew over before sunset Sunday after hearing reports the plane could have gone down in the swamp.
"It's not what you expect, a bunch of trees knocked down and charred," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters. "It's just a big muddy hole, like many others out there."
The U.S. and France are among the nations providing aircraft and other equipment to help the Cameroonians search. A team from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board was expected in Cameroon on Tuesday.
The wreckage was found southeast of Douala, along the Nairobi-bound plane's flight path from the Douala airport — more than 40 hours after the Boeing 737-800 lost contact with the airport. The crash site was concealed by a thick canopy of trees, Titus Naikuni, chief executive of Kenya Airways, said in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi on Sunday.
Flight 507 had departed from Douala airport early Saturday, an hour late because of rain, with 105 passengers and nine crew members on board. The plane issued a distress call, but then lost contact with the radio tower between 11 and 13 minutes after takeoff, officials said. It was not immediately clear if the plane deviated from its flight path.
The search initially focused on the rugged, forested area near the town of Lolodorf, about 90 miles southeast of Douala. Officials had been led to believe the plane had crashed in the vast, hard-to-access forest because of an incorrect satellite signal, possibly emitted from the plane, said Sobakam, the meteorology chief.
Fishermen living in the swampy mangroves near the Douala airport reported hearing a loud sound at the time of the crash, and later led searchers to the site, Sobakam said.
"It's close enough that we could have seen it from the airport — but apparently there was no smoke or fire."
One of the many unanswered questions is why the plane stopped emitting signals after an initial distress call. The plane is equipped with an automatic device that should have kept up emissions for another two days.
An exhausted battery could be one reason, said Capt. Paul Mwangi, head of operations for Kenya Airways. "It is very unlikely, but the device can actually be destroyed. The impact would have to be very, very severe," he said Sunday.
Kenya Airways is considered one of the safest airlines in Africa, and Naikuni said the plane that crashed Saturday was only six months old.
The last crash of an international Kenya Airways flight was on Jan. 30, 2000, when Flight 431 was taking off from Abidjan, Ivory Coast, on its way to Nairobi. Investigators blamed a faulty alarm and pilot error for that crash, which killed 169 people.