African air crash kills 18

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African air crash kills 18

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(CNN) -- A plane crashed Tuesday shortly after taking off from the Goma airport in the Democratic Republic of Congo, killing at least 18 people and tearing roofs off houses, according to the Interior Ministry.


Original reports had as many as 75 people dead. There was no immediate explanation for the conflicting numbers.

Antoine Ghonda, a Congolese lawmaker and former foreign minister, said all five crew members survived. It is unclear if that death toll included people on the ground.

Among the passengers who survived was a family of four Americans. They suffered minimal injuries, a U.S. Embassy spokeswoman said.

According to a manifest obtained by the U.S. Embassy, there were 79 passengers and five crew members aboard the plane.

The death toll is unclear. Rescue workers continue to search the burned wreckage of the DC-9 passenger jet.

A journalist who witnessed the aftermath described "a scene of total devastation and chaos." Video Watch iReport video of crash aftermath »

Journalist Mick Davie said a crowd gathered "to try to either put out the fire ... or loot what remained of the aircraft."

"Only the very tip of the nose cone and the tail of the airplane were intact," he said. "There was a huge amount of debris -- the roofs of maybe a dozen buildings in the immediate vicinity had been taken off [by the plane]."

He said the plane "didn't actually make it into the air because the runway here in Goma is a little higher than the rest of the town."

The runway was shortened five years ago after a volcano erupted and destroyed nearly half the town.

The flight, operated by Hewa Bora airlines, was heading from the eastern city of Goma to the central city of Kisangani, Ghonda said. He said the cause of the crash is believed to be engine failure.

Anna Ridout, an aid worker with World Vision, rushed to the crash site from her office about a kilometer away.

"I can see shops that have been just completely destroyed," she said. "This was a market area where women were selling their goods. ...

"People were talking of people just being plowed over by the plane moving across the ground and through the shops and through wooden houses."

The plane went down shortly after 3 p.m. (9 a.m. ET) and was still on fire several hours later, she said.

The United Nations and the Red Cross were helping with the rescue effort, which was being hampered by the "very basic, if nonexistent" rescue equipment in the impoverished country, U.N. spokesman Kemal Saiki said.

Those who helped pull people from the burning wreckage said the survivors include the pilot, the co-pilot and a baby, Saiki and Ridout said.

Before the United Nations arrived on the scene with one water tanker, Davie said, Congolese women were filling up plastic buckets with tap water and handing them to a line of men "who passed them up to the wreckage and into the flaming fuselage."

He described the scene as "one of the touching and really tragic moments that I saw today."

While "the vast majority of people" who had gathered at the crash site were trying to extinguish the fire and find survivors, Davie said some took advantage of the situation.

"I saw people stuffing airplane meals into their shirts, putting canned food -- which I guess had been on the airplane -- into their pockets, people digging through the debris looking for money and wallets," he said.

The DC-9 was operated by a private Congolese airline called Hewa Bora, which the European Union added to its blacklist of carriers just last week. Although all other Congo carriers had been previously banned by the EU, Hewa Bora operated a weekly flight to Belgium "under a special arrangement." That flight was halted last week because of safety violations.

Congolese authorities had not suspended the airline, but Ghonda said, "I'm quite sure they're going to" after Tuesday's crash.

The Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire, has a dismal aviation record. There have been 10 plane crashes in the nation since February of last year, resulting in 76 deaths -- not including Tuesday's crash -- according to Aviation Safety Network.

Saiki said because of its poor infrastructure, air travel is one of the few ways to get around the Congo.

"This is the third largest country in Africa, as big as Western Europe, and yet you don't even have 2,000 miles of roads," Saiki said. "So basically most of the transportation in such a big country is done by air."

video from the crash

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