GOMA, Congo (Reuters) - A Congolese airliner crashed into a market district in the eastern city of Goma on Tuesday, killing at least 33 people and injuring 80, the government said.
The Hewa Bora Airways McDonnell Douglas DC-9 ploughed into a crowded neighbourhood of Goma, capital of Democratic Republic of Congo’s eastern North Kivu Province, after bad weather forced the pilot to abort take-off.
Government spokesman Esdras Kambale said in a broadcast on national television that 33 people were killed and 80 injured in the crash, but gave no further details.
A local governor and the Congolese Red Cross had initially reported only six survivors and more than 70 dead, but Dirk Cramers, marketing director of Hewa Bora, said the majority of the 79 passengers aboard the plane had survived.
“With the help of the U.N., we were able to pull out almost all of the passengers before it ignited,” Cramers told Reuters. He said the seven crew members had also survived.
Cramers put the confirmed death toll so far at 21, and said he believed all were killed in the Birere market district which was struck by the airliner when it failed to lift off.
“The plane fell on a populated district,” North Kivu governor Julien Paluku said, adding that rescue teams were working and it was too early to give a final death toll.
The crash was the latest aviation disaster to hit Congo, a vast central African state the size of western Europe which is recovering from a war and has one of the world’s worst air safety records.
Cramers said the plane had failed to reach take-off speed because of water lying on the runway after a heavy downpour. When the pilot tried to abort the take-off, the plane skidded through a wall into the market area.
“It was an abortive take-off and the aircraft ran into the wall. Just behind the wall there were some local shops. And most of the casualties come from there,” he said.
“I was in my seat with my seat belt fastened. There was a big crash. We jumped up and found our way out. We could feel the fire behind us,” said one survivor, 51-year-old Frederic Katemo, who said he scrambled out through the cockpit.
He suffered only singed hair and a bruised leg.
The nose and cockpit section of the airliner was left largely intact, jutting into the debris of crushed stalls and shattered houses in a street of the Birere district.
Residents heard a big explosion, which flattened at least one building, scattering bricks and masonry, and set several more on fire. A large plume of smoke rose from the crash site.
Congolese police and United Nations soldiers, members of the U.N. peacekeeping contingent in Congo, had struggled to keep back hordes of onlookers who swarmed over the crash site.
Goma airport, located within sight of a nearby volcano, has suffered several crashes in the past.
“We have been waiting for something like this to happen. There have been lots of accidents just behind here at the airport,” Serge Ukundji, a conservationist with the Frankfurt Zoological Society who lives in Goma, told Reuters.
Last week, the European Union added Congo’s Hewa Bora Airways to a list of aviation companies banned from flying in the 27-nation bloc over safety concerns.
There were eight plane crashes in Democratic Republic of Congo last year, according to the Geneva-based Aircraft Crashes Record Office (ACRO).
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) says the air accident rate in Africa is six times worse than in the rest of the world and calls this an “embarrassment”.
Aviation safety experts single out Democratic Republic of Congo, which is still struggling to recover from a 1998-2003 war, as one of the worst offenders.
Passengers and cargo are packed onto ageing planes, often Soviet-built, which fly to multiple remote destinations across the former Belgian central African colony.
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Additional reporting by Lubunga Bya'Ombe in Kinshasa, William Schomberg in Brussels, writing by Pascal Fletcher and Nick Tattersall; Editing by Elizabeth Piper