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Airplane Tragedy in Congo Kills Dozens

May 10, 2003|From Times Wire Services

KINSHASA, Congo — The rear door of a cargo plane burst open over Congo, hurling dozens of soldiers, their wives and children to their deaths while others survived by clinging inside the aircraft as it returned to the airport, officials said Friday.

There was confusion over the death toll. Two officials at the international airport said 129 people were feared dead. Later, a third official estimated the casualties at half that, saying the exact figure may be difficult to determine because of an incomplete manifest. All spoke on condition of anonymity.

But army officers, aviation officials, Western diplomats and a survivor all said more than 100 people had been killed.

"I was asleep and then I heard people screaming," one survivor, Prudent Mukalayi, said at Kinshasa General Hospital. He estimated that as many as 200 people were on board.

"When I woke up the pilot told everyone to get to the front of the plane and there were about 40 of us, but people kept dying ... there were only about 20 survivors."

Nine survivors were treated for minor injuries and psychological trauma.

The plane, a Russian-built Ilyushin 76, lost its door at 33,000 feet about 45 minutes after takeoff Thursday night from Kinshasa, capital of the central African nation, said government spokesman Kikaya Bin Karubi.

Seven people were confirmed dead and military helicopters were searching the region for more casualties, the spokesman said. Karubi did not provide details but confirmed that those who died had been "ejected from the plane."

"The door opened and the plane depressurized. Many were sucked out," said Dr. Kabamba Mbwebwe.

The flight crew managed to fly the plane back to the capital, where it could be seen the next day on the tarmac, missing a door.

It was not known how many people were on the plane or whether they had seats or seat belts. People in Africa often travel on modified cargo planes that have few seats, leaving most passengers to cram in among their belongings in the rear of the aircraft.

The privately owned plane apparently had been chartered to transport Congolese soldiers and their families from Kinshasa to the southeastern city of Lubumbashi, a diamond center. Soldiers regularly provide security in Congo cities, often traveling as a group between assignments.

It was not immediately known why the door came open. The weather was clear. There was no suggestion of sabotage.

The plane's owner was not immediately identified. The logo reads "Ukrainian Cargo Airlines."

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