- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 6, 2007

YAOUNDE, Cameroon - A Kenya Airways jet that took off during a midnight storm crashed early yesterday 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 the coastal city of Douala, from which it had taken off after midnight, said Alex Bayeck, a regional communications officer.There was no word on survivors, Mr. Bayeck said by mobile telephone while en route to the crash site. He said search planes were flying over the forested area where the airliner gave off a distress signal, but no wreckage had been spotted.Residents in the area, which has few roads and is dotted by small villages, reported hearing a “large boom” during the night, and some described a flash of fire, Mr. Bayeck said.In Lolodorf, a dozen ambulances stood ready and a handful of family members of passengers gathered in the city center. Some said they had traveled as far as 250 miles that day.”I don’t know what to do. I’m just terribly confused. My younger sister boarded this plane that is supposed to have crashed. I hope we can still find her alive,” said Innocent Bonu, a lawyer from the southwestern town of Buea.Jean Francois Villong, a local official who was coordinating the rescue effort, said the air search stopped with nightfall because helicopters could not operate effectively in the dark, but the ground search was continuing.”It is very difficult because this area is very mountainous and heavily forested. And we suspect the plane may have fallen into a valley,” Mr. Villong said.He said helicopters would start searching again in the morning and additional rescue workers were expected to reinforce the effort. Much of yesterday’s searching was done by volunteers from local villages, Mr. Villong added.Kenya Airways CEO Titus Naikuni held back on confirming the crash “until we see the plane until then, it’s missing,” he said.He said the distress call was issued automatically “from a machine, not a pilot” but he said a crash is not the only reason a plane issues an automatic distress signal.Boeing spokesman Jim Proulx said the Boeing 737-800 that crashed was equipped with an emergency transmitter that sends out an automatic locator signal “in the event of a rapid change in velocity.”Mr. Proulx told the Associated Press by telephone from Seattle that the transmitter would have been activated upon impact, but also can be manually turned on by the flight crew.Mr. Naikuni said the plane, which was almost new, took off an hour late because of rain. Douala airport officials confirmed thunderstorms at the time of takeoff but said they were unlikely to have been the sole cause of the accident.”There was a thunderstorm, but there were other planes that left after that had no problems,” said Thomas Sobatam, head of weather observation at the airport.Kenya’s transport minister, Ali Chirau Makwere, said it was too early to determine what happened.”We need to get information from the technical experts as to whether it was occasioned by the weather or pilot error or mechanical fault,” he said in Nairobi. “We really don’t know. It’s too early to make any conclusions.”The jetliner was carrying 114 persons, including 105 passengers from at least 23 countries, Kenyan airline officials said. A Nairobi-based Associated Press correspondent, Anthony Mitchell, was believed to be among them. Mr. Mitchell had been on assignment in the region for the past week.”Anthony had contacted his family before boarding the flight to let them know he was headed home,” AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll said. “We hope for the best.”Relatives at Nairobi’s airport began wailing as news reports of the crash filtered in. Dozens of family members collapsed in the airport terminal.One person at the airport said families had not been given any information. “I cannot talk now because there is no news,” he said, declining to give his name.

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