Official: No One Survived Kenya Airways Crash

May 7, 2007
"Whatever happened must have happened very fast, which is usually a sign of catastrophic structural failure," said Patrick Smith, a U.S. based-airline pilot and aviation expert.

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 seeing the water-filled crater the plane left.

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 as large as a soccer field, and saw no survivors: "I was there. I saw none."

(See related story, Thunderstorms, Engine Failure Explored as Causes of Kenya Airways Crash.)

The plane was submerged in murky, orange-brown water on which scraps of metal and plastic floated. Workers stretched a hose in preparation for pumping out the water.

"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 to ambulances that had driven as close as vehicles could get, about a 20-minute hike to the site. Trees had been 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. But 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.

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 had said earlier. "It's very unlikely that there are any survivors, but until we have completely surveyed the area, we are not going to announce that."

The plane had taken off from Douala, Cameroon's commercial capital, and its wreckage was found just 20 kilometers (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 crash site was not remote, it was in a dense and hard-to-access mangrove forest. The road in was dirt track, its ruts filled with water Monday after heavy overnight rains. The last stretch to the site could accommodate only foot traffic - a large Douala airport truck had become mired in the mud overnight. Villagers wielding machetes and chain saws cleared the way for recovery teams Monday.

A U.S. Embassy official who saw the crash site from a plane Monday said it would have been impossible to have found it 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 U.S. National Transportation Safety Board team 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, Kenya Airways CEO Titus Naikuni said Sunday, chief executive of Kenya Airways, told a news conference 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 at any point from its flight path.

The search initially focused on the rugged, forested area near the town of Lolodorf, about 90 miles (140 kilometers) 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.

"It was the fishermen ... who led us 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."

Drenching rains also might have camouflaged the smoldering wreck in the nighttime hours immediately after the crash, officials said.

Officials said it was too early to tell what caused the plane to go down so quickly after takeoff.

"Whatever happened must have happened very fast, which is usually a sign of catastrophic structural failure," said Patrick Smith, a U.S. based-airline pilot and aviation expert.

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.

Family members of passengers and crew gathered in Nairobi and Douala, many weeping.

"Oh my last born, my last born, where am I going to go?" Kezzia Musimbi Kadurenge, the mother of a missing crew member, said in Kenya. "I'm finished."

Kenya Airways is considered one of the safest airlines in Africa. The Douala-Nairobi flight runs several times a week, and is commonly used as an intermediary flight to Europe and the Middle East. The airline said most passengers were to transfer to ongoing flights in Nairobi.

Naikuni said the plane 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.


Associated Press writers Elizabeth A. Kennedy and Tom Maliti in Nairobi, Kenya; Rukmini Callimachi in Dakar, Senegal; and Slobodan Lekic in Brussels, Belgium, contributed to this report.


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