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Wreckage of missing Kenya jetliner found in forest near airport

Monday, May 7, 2007

DOUALA, Cameroon -- The wreckage of a Kenya Airways jetliner that crashed was found late Sunday in a dense mangrove forest outside Cameroon's commercial capital, aviation officials said. There was no information on survivors.

Dozens of rescue workers and journalists walking through the swamp at night reached the edge of the crash site but did not immediately find survivors. Reporters said they had found only small, scattered pieces of wreckage before they had to abandon the search because of darkness and deep water. Teams said they would resume at first light and follow the debris trail in hopes of finding the main part of the wreckage.

The chief executive of Kenya Airways said he had no news about the plane's condition or about the 114 people who were on board.

"We have no confirmed information about survivors or any possible casualties," Titus Naikuni told a news conference in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi.

The cause of the crash remained unclear.

The wreckage was found about 12 miles southeast of Douala, along its flight path. It had been difficult to spot because it was hidden by a thick canopy of trees, Naikuni said.

The Nairobi-bound Boeing 737-800 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.

The search for the wreckage initially focused on the thickly forested mountains near the town of Lolodorf, about 90 miles southeast of coastal Douala. But when it was found just 12 miles away, it raised questions about whether the plane had flown some distance and then turned around and headed back to the airport along the same flight path.

Rescue vehicles including ambulances and fire trucks sped to the scene of the crash, sirens blaring. Rescue workers could not drive all the way to the crash site by car, and completed the journey by foot. Journalists with the rescue convoy said it took 40 minutes to walk from the road to the edge of the site.

"We are actively looking for survivors," said Thomas Sobakam, chief of meteorology for the Douala airport.

Heavy rains hampered the search-and-rescue effort in the fog-shrouded forest. At the same time, aviation authorities sent out a ground crew to investigate claims by fishermen living in the swampy mangroves near the Douala airport. Several reported hearing a loud sound at the time of the suspected 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."

The drenching rains also might have camouflaged the smoldering wreck in the nighttime hours immediately after the crash.

Among the passengers on Flight 507 was Nairobi-based Associated Press correspondent Anthony Mitchell, one of five Britons on a passenger list released Sunday by the airline. Mitchell had been on assignment in the region.

Other passengers include executives from the South African cell phone giant MTN and the nephew of Indian tycoon Ramesh Chauhan, the owner of Parle Products, a leading manufacturer of cookies in India.

Family members gathered at the Nairobi and Douala airports, many openly 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."

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.

"A plane never takes off into a thunderstorm, no crew or carrier would allow that," he said. "But it is remotely possible that the plane could have inadvertently gone into some extremely turbulent air and suffered massive hail damage or a sudden structural failure.

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.

"Why the signal is not being heard right now, we're not quite sure," Naikuni said Saturday.

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.

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.


On the Net:

http://www.kenya-airways.com


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