Kenya Airways jet crashes with 114

The six-month-old Boeing 737-800 took off in a thunderstorm, then issued a distress signal.

Published May 6, 2007

YAOUNDE, Cameroon - A Kenya Airways jet that took off during a midnight storm crashed early Saturday with 114 on board after sending out a distress signal over remote southern Cameroon, officials said. Nearby villagers reported hearing an explosion and seeing a flash of fire.

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

He said search planes were flying over the forested area where the airliner gave off the signal but no wreckage had been spotted.

Kenya Airways chief executive Titus Naikuni held back on confirming the crash "until we see the plane - until then, it's missing, " he said.

The airline is considered one of the safest in Africa, and the last time one of its international flights crashed was on Jan. 30, 2000. Investigators blamed a faulty alarm and pilot error for that crash, which killed 169 people.

Naikuni said that the distress call Saturday was issued automatically - "from a machine, not a pilot" - but that a crash is not the only reason a plane issues an automatic distress signal.

Boeing spokesman Jim Proulx said the plane was equipped with an emergency transmitter that sends out an automatic locator signal "in the event of a rapid change in velocity."

Naikuni said the plane, which he said was six months old, took off an hour late because of rain. Douala airport officials confirmed thunderstorms 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 Thomas Sobatam, head of weather observation at the airport.

The Boeing 737-800 was carrying 114 people, including 105 passengers from at least 23 countries, Kenyan airline officials said.

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

Kenyan government spokesman Alfred Mutua urged patience. "The area is in a very dense forest; the weather has been horrid to say the least, " he said, suggesting that rain was hampering the search.

That area of Cameroon is not well-covered by radar, and investigators are having a hard time pinpointing the plane's flight path, Mutua said.

Relatives at Nairobi's airport began wailing at reports of the crash. Dozens of family members collapsed in the terminal.

Janet Mwema went to a crisis center Kenya Airways set up at a Nairobi hotel because she believed her daughter, Vicky, a cabin crew member, might have been on the flight.

"We trust God that he will strengthen his people, " Mwema said. "Because we all go one day, whether it is accident or what."