Update: 111 injured; 40 Dead in Goma Crash

Wednesday, April 16, 2008
By George Hatcher

A Congolese domestic airliner taking off from Goma failed lift off, rammed through a fence and crashed into a crowded market district and burned. The Hewa Bora McDonnell Douglas DC-9 was taking off for the Congolese capital, Kinshasa, when it crashed into the teeming market district of Birere; the single-story shops and stalls of Birere were crowded at the time of the crash. An American missionary, Barry Mosier, was onboard with his wife and two children, and said the plane’s front tire blew out just before the DC-9 lifted off. When they saw flames, and smoke coming up through the floor, the passengers who were not trapped tried the side doors which did not open, so they exited thru the pilots cabin.

Pilots could not stop on the short runway which was partially blocked by volcanic lava from 2002. Residents heard a big explosion. A large plume of smoke rose from the crash site. A witness said, “Half of the plane has broken off, there is a fire towards the back. People are coming with buckets of water to put out the fire. The U.N. is here trying to keep back the crowds.”

Crew members and U.N. troops managed to evacuate most of the 79 passenger on board, but there were 40 deaths and 110 injured–many of them locals. Not all bodies have been recovered.

Recovery of bodies was hindered by ground fires where there were additional casualties.

The Congo has one of the world’s worst air safety records. The Goma airport has been the site of several accidents, with planes overshooting the runway and endangering homes near the airport. According to the International Air Transport Association, the air accident rate in Africa is six times the average. Aviation safety experts single out Democratic Republic of Congo as one of the worst offenders. The huge country only has a few hundred miles of paved roads. The European Union added Congo’s Hewa Bora Airways to the banned list of aviation companies flying in the 27-nation block last week.

One of the survivors, Frederic Katemo, said that he scrambled out through the cockpit. “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.”

Initially, Governor of North Kivu province, Julien Paluku, said there were 79 passengers and six crew members but that “…six people have been saved, two pilots and four passengers including two children.”

Serge Ukundji a local conservationist said, “We have been waiting for something like this to happen. There have been lots of accidents just behind here at the airport.”

The cause of the accident was still under investigation. The overloaded cabin is believed to be the reason behind the crash.

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