Signs found of jet downed in Africa

Updated: 2007-05-06 20:11

LOLODORF, Cameroon - Signs have been found of a Kenya-bound flight that crashed in Cameroon with 114 people on board, an aviation official said Sunday.

Kenyans pray during a church service held for the victims of the Kenya Airways plane crash at the All Saints cathedral in Nairobi, Kenya, Sunday, May 6, 2007. [AP]

Thomas Sobakam, chief of meteorology for the Doula airport from where the flight took off, refused to describe the signs, but said they were not pieces of wreckage. He said a state radio report the crash site had been located was premature. He refused further comment, stressing the search for the plane's wreckage continued.

Michael Okwiri, spokesman for Kenya Airways, said officials in Kenya had also received reports the plane had been found, but could not confirm them.

"We have the same information, that the crash site has been located 180 kilometers (about 100 miles) from Douala," he said. "We have people on the ground and there appears to be conflicting information."

The international search for the Kenya Airways plane, which disappeared early Saturday, has been hampered by heavy rain followed by fog, thick forest and the rugged, remote terrain where it was believed to have crashed.

A Kenya Airways official added at a news conference in Nairobi earlier Sunday that the plane stopped emitting emergency signals after an initial distress call, though an automatic device should have kept up emissions for another two days.

"Why the signal is not being heard right now, we're not quite sure," said Kenya Airways CEO Titus Naikuni.

Sobakam had said at least 20 search-and-rescue vehicles left Saturday and spent the night in the bush. They were now positioned at strategic points inside the vast forest and were searching methodically. The effort includes a team of Cameroonian firefighters, as well as several teams led by MTN, a South African cell phone company that had several employees on board the crashed jet, Sobatam said.

Helicopters had resumed combing the tree canopy for signs of the wreckage on Sunday, Sobatam said.

Kenyan officials were on the scene, France lent helicopters and the US and Boeing sent experts.

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

There was no word on survivors, Bayeck said by telephone Saturday.

Relatives and colleagues of those aboard were making their way to the remote area, which has few roads and is dotted by small villages. Some expressed a willingness to join the search themselves but acknowledged they did not know how to begin in the tough conditions.

Infrastructure is poor in Cameroon's interior, with much of the area being searched only accessible by dirt tracks that turn to impassable mud in the rainy season. The country of 17 million on Africa's western coast has oil reserves and lush farmland but many of its citizens remain poor subsistence farmers.

Residents reported hearing a "large boom" Saturday, Bayeck said, and some said they saw a flash of fire markedly different from lightning.

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, Wash., that the transmitter would have been activated upon impact, and can also be turned on by the plane's flight crew.

Naikuni had said the plane was almost new. Sunday, he said Kenya Airways had no plans to ground the other two Boeing 737-800s in its fleet.

"We have checked the history of the aircraft with the manufacturer ... We don't believe at this particular moment that there is anything that would force us to stop operating the other two," Naikuni said.

Naikuni had said the plane took off an hour late because of rain. Douala airport officials confirmed thunderstorms at the time 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 Sobatam, the Douala meteorology chief.

The Boeing 737-800 was carrying 114 people, including 105 passengers from 27 countries, Kenyan airline officials said, releasing a list of passengers' names Sunday.

A Nairobi-based Associated Press correspondent, Anthony Mitchell, was on the list. Mitchell had been on assignment in the region for the past week.

"We hope for the best," AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll said Saturday.

The flight departed Douala at 12:05 a.m. and was to have arrived in Nairobi at 6:15 a.m. The flight originated in Ivory Coast and stopped in Cameroon to pick up more passengers, the airline said.

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

The US National Transportation Safety Board said it was sending a team to assist Cameroon in its investigation.

Boeing's Proulx said there have not been any safety concerns with Chicago-based Boeing's fleet of 737-800s. About 2,000 737-800s are in use worldwide.

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.

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