Kinshasa, Congo In a thunderous blast, a cargo plane slammed into an impoverished residential neighborhood in Congo's capital seconds after takeoff Thursday, leaving at least 25 people dead in a smoky wreckage of concrete blocks and twisted debris.
The fiery crash underscored the dangers of flying in Congo, which has experienced more fatal air crashes than any other African country since 1945, according to the Aviation Safety Network. The turboprop belonged to the Congolese company Africa One, which has been barred from flying in the European Union because of safety concerns.
Citing police reports, U.N. peacekeeping spokesman Michel Bonnardeaux said 25 people were killed and two aboard the plane survived - a mechanic and a flight attendant who was in critical condition.
Police said that amid the wreckage, it was difficult to determine how many of the dead had been aboard the plane and how many were on the ground. Transport Minister Remy Kuseyo said at least three people on the ground died.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said three Russians were among the dead: the pilot, the co-pilot and a flight engineer. Cargo planes in Congo are frequently flown by pilots from former Soviet states.
At least 22 people were injured, according to the Congolese Red Cross.
It was not immediately known what caused the Antonov 26 to go down. But the Russian Foreign Ministry said one of the plane's propellers somehow broke off during takeoff, and one of its wings was sheared off as it hit a bank of trees.
That account was echoed by several witnesses at the scene, who said the aircraft appeared to be missing a propeller.
"The plane clipped several treetops and hit the roofs of three houses, crashing onto its back with its tires in the air," said Japhet Kiwa, who lives in the neighborhood of Kingasani, a few miles from Kinshasa's Ndili International Airport. "There was a huge explosion."
The blast set palm trees ablaze and tore apart three single-story homes between two dirt roads. Little was left, except two detached wheels on the roof of a house, strips of the plane's riveted exterior and what appeared to be part of an engine. A large bent propeller stuck out of the earth, surrounded by gray concrete blocks, trash, torn clothes and debris.
Smoke filled the sky for hours as firefighters struggled to douse the flames amid a chaotic crowd of shouting onlookers, including wailing friends and relatives of the victims.
Red Cross workers scampered among the debris, hauling charred corpses out of the rubble in blue plastic sacks, which were loaded into ambulances and taken to a hospital in Kinshasa.
Laurent Kongolo said he and several other people pulled a woman from the burning wreckage of one of the homes that had been hit. "She was between life and death," he said. "It was horrible."
U.N.-funded Radio Okapi said the aircraft was headed to Tshikapa in the central province of Kasai Occidental.
Civil aviation chief Alphonse Ilunga said the plane's flight manifest indicated 16 people were on board, but an unknown number of others boarded before takeoff - a common occurrence in Congo.
Few passable roads traverse Congo after decades of war and corrupt rule, forcing the country's deeply impoverished people to rely on boats and planes.
Congo has one of the worst air safety records in the world. The country's safety regulations are notoriously lax and the old and ill-maintained planes are constantly being overloaded.
"The problem with Congo is that because of conflict over a long period of time there has been limited government oversight over the operation of airlines," said Elijah Chingosho, technical and training director of the Kenya-based African Airlines Association.