GOMA, Congo — A Congolese jetliner trying to take off Tuesday with about 80 people aboard careened off a runway and into a busy market neighborhood in this eastern town. At least 21 people were killed, but most of those aboard survived, an airline official said.
U.N. peacekeepers and crew members struggled to evacuate the aircraft before the DC-9 operated by the private Congolese company Hewa Bora Airways went up in flames.
"The crew managed to save the majority of the passengers with the help" of the peacekeepers," Hewa Bora representative Dirk Cramers said.
He put the confirmed death toll at 21. "Most of the victims were people on the ground," Cramers said.
Cramers said the airline was "still trying to count the number of victims and wounded, but until now none of the 79 people on the official list of passengers and crew have been found dead."
The Red Cross said 113 people had been injured and were being treated in hospitals and clinics.
At the crash site, smoke and flames engulfed the charred ruins of the aircraft as tractors, trucks and hordes of people with shovels searched for survivors. U.N. peacekeepers sprayed the wreckage with water hoses, and soldiers kept some crowds back.
The damaged cockpit and tail were visible, and in between was the fuselage — a burned, flattened and tangled mixture of rubble and debris and charred shops, Anna Ridout of the aid agency World Vision said from the scene. Rescue workers carried out about 20 corpses from the plane, many on stretchers, Ridout said.
Last week, the European Union had added Hewa Bora to its blacklist of airlines banned from flying in the EU. The tragedy underscored the dangers of plane travel in Congo. The country, still struggling to emerge from a 1998-2002 war, has experienced more fatal crashes than any other African country since 1945, according to the nonprofit Aviation Safety Network.
The aid agency World Vision, whose employees visited the crash site, said in a statement the plane "failed to leave the ground," plowing "through wooden houses and shops in the highly populated Birere market."
A former pilot and passenger who survived the afternoon crash, Dunia Sindani, gave a similar account in an interview broadcast over a local U.N. radio station. The plane suffered a problem in one of its wheels — possibly a flat tire — and did not gain the strength to lift off, Sindani said.
Regional Gov. Julien Mpaluku said one of the plane's pilots reported that an engine died as the plane taxied down the runway. When the pilots tried to brake, a tire failed as well, the governor said.
It was unclear if weather played a part in the crash. It had stopped raining about one hour before the plane took off, residents said.
The plane appeared to have burst through a thin fence separating the runway from a market district of wooden houses and cement shops where sugar, avocados, flour and fuel are sold.
"I talked to a man who rescued seven people, including a 6-month-old baby, from an exit door. They were still conscious and moving," Ridout said. "But he couldn't go any further because he couldn't see anything. There was too much smoke."
Conflicting accounts of crash
Earlier, conflicting accounts said the plane crashed just after takeoff.
Mpaluku said seven members of the flight crew were among the survivors. He said one of the surviving pilots said that one of the motors died as they taxied down the runway, and when the pilots tried to brake, a tire failed as well.
The Hewa Bora plane was headed to the central city of Kisangani, then the capital, Kinshasa.
Mpaluku said it was not clear whether the injured taken to hospital had been in the plane or on the ground when the accident occurred.
"We have already picked up many bodies — dozens of bodies. There are a lot of flames, which makes it difficult to know if the bodies we are picking up are those of passengers of the plane or else passers-by or people that lived in the area where the plane crashed," Mpaluku said.
Goma's runway has been partially blocked and effectively shortened by lava from a 2001 volcanic eruption in Goma, a town that is 700 miles east of Kinshasa.
In a statement, President Joseph Kabila expressed condolences to the affected families and called for an investigation into the cause of the crash.
On Friday, the European Union added Hewa Bora Airways to its blacklist of airlines banned from flying in the EU, without specifying a reason. On Tuesday, EU spokesman Michele Cercone said she had no information on Hewa Bora specifically but she said that all airlines based in the Democratic Republic of Congo are banned from EU air space.
"That is because there is a general lack of effective control by the civil aviation authorities there to monitor and maintain minimum technical standards" for airplanes, Cercone said.
The EU's current list of banned airlines shows 50 airlines based in the Democratic Republic of Congo, including Hewa Bora.
Cercone said that until a few weeks ago one Hewa Bora plane was allowed to fly to Europe under a special exemption, but that has expired.
DC-9s have been involved in a number of accidents over the decades, including ValuJet Flight 2553, which plunged into the Florida Everglades on May 11, 1996.
On January 1, 2007, a Northwest Airlines DC-9 went off the runway at General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee. The accident was due to an explosion in one of the engines, forcing the pilot to abort takeoff. Of the 104 people aboard, only one injury was reported.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.