Crews Stilling Looking for Crashed Kenya Air Flight

Kenya Airways CEO Titus Naikuni held back on confirming the crash "until we see the plane - until then, it's missing," he said.


LOLODORF, Cameroon --

Rescuers searched a densely forested region overnight in southern Cameroon for a Kenya-bound flight that crashed with 114 people on board after sending out a distress signal, officials said.

The jet bound for the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, went down early Saturday near Lolodorf, a town about 90 miles (150 kilometers) southeast of the coastal city of Douala, where it had taken off after midnight, said Alex Bayeck, a regional communications officer.

There was no word on survivors, Bayeck said by telephone en route to the crash site.

On Saturday, search planes flew over the forested area where the airliner gave off a distress signal, but no wreckage has been spotted.

The search continued on the ground through the night, but helicopters could not operate effectively in the dark, said Jean Francois Villong, a local official coordinating the rescue effort. The helicopters would start again Sunday morning, he said, and more rescue workers including security forces were expected. Much of Saturday's searching was done by volunteers from local villages, he said.

"It is very difficult because this area is very mountainous and heavily forested. And we suspect the plane may have fallen into a valley," Villong said.

Residents in the area, which has few roads and is dotted by small villages, reported hearing a "large boom" during the previous night, Bayeck said, and some people said they saw a flash of fire that looked markedly different from lightning.

Close to a dozen ambulances stood ready in Lolodorf on Saturday, and a handful of family members of passengers gathered in the city center. Some said they had traveled as far as 250 miles (400 kilometers) that day.

"I don't know what to do. I'm just terribly confused. My younger sister boarded this plane that is supposed to have crashed. I hope we can still find her alive," said Innocent Bonu, a lawyer from the southwestern town of Buea.

Kenya Airways CEO Titus Naikuni held back on confirming the crash "until we see the plane - until then, it's missing," he said.

He said the distress call was issued automatically - "from a machine, not a pilot" - but said a crash is not the only reason a plane issues an automatic distress signal.

Boeing spokesman Jim Proulx said the plane that crashed was equipped with an emergency transmitter that sends out an automatic locator signal "in the event of a rapid change in velocity."

Proulx told The Associated Press by telephone from Seattle, Washington, that the transmitter would have been activated upon impact, and can also be manually turned on by the plane's flight crew.

Naikuni said the plane, which was almost new, took off an hour late because of rain. Douala airport officials confirmed thunderstorms at the time of takeoff, but said that was unlikely to have been the sole cause of the accident.

"There was a thunderstorm, but there were other planes that left after (the Kenya Airways flight to Nairobi) that had no problems," said Thomas Sobatam, head of weather observation at the airport.

Kenya's transport minister, Ali Chirau Makwere, said it was too early to determine what happened.

"We need to get information from the technical experts as to whether it was occasioned by the weather or pilot error or mechanical fault," he said in Nairobi. "We really don't know. It's too early to make any conclusions."

The Boeing 737-800 was carrying 114 people, including 105 passengers from at least 23 countries, Kenyan airline officials said. A Nairobi-based Associated Press correspondent, Anthony Mitchell, was believed to be among them. Mitchell had been on assignment in the region for the past week.

"Anthony ... had contacted his family before boarding the flight to let them know he was headed home," AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll said. "We hope for the best."

Relatives at Nairobi's airport began wailing as news reports of the crash filtered in. Dozens of family members collapsed in the airport terminal.

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