GOMA, Congo - A Congolese jetliner with about 85 people on board failed to take off Tuesday from an airport in this eastern town, slamming into a busy market neighborhood at the end of the runway and bursting into flames, officials said.
Witnesses reported dozens of bodies at the scene of crash in the Central African nation.
Regional Gov. Julien Mpaluku initially said there were only six known survivors from the crash. Later in the day, he said up to 75 people had escaped alive with injuries, though it was unclear whether they were passengers on the plane or passers-by.
The tragedy underscored the dangers of plane travel in Congo, which has experienced more fatal crashes than any other African country since 1945, according to the Aviation Safety Network.
Smoke and flames engulfed the charred ruins of the aircraft as tractors, trucks and hordes of onlookers with shovels searched for survivors. Rescue workers carried out about 20 corpses from the plane, many on stretchers, Anna Ridot of the international aid group World Vision said from the scene.
"Smoke was rising from the plane," said Christian Kilundu, a spokesman for the Goma office of World Vision, which has an office less than half a mile from the crash site. "As fire extinguishers were trying to put out the flames, I spoke to a priest who had been pulled from the wreckage. He was disoriented and had no idea what had happened."
The plane was operated by the private Congolese company, Hewa Bora, and was headed to the central city of Kisangani, then the capital, Kinshasa.
Hewa Bora's Dirk Cramers said 53 passengers and seven crew members were taken from the site to local hospitals. Mpaluku, the regional governor, said it was not clear whether those hospitalized 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.
Employees at World Vision said the plane "failed to leave the ground," plowing instead "through wooden houses and shops in the highly populated Birere market."
The plane appeared to have been "totally flattened" by the impact, said Rachel Wolff, a U.S.-based spokeswoman for the organization who has been in contact with her colleagues in Congo.
A former pilot who survived the 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.
Earlier, conflicting accounts said the plane had crashed just after takeoff.
Just last 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, European Union spokesman Michele Cercone said she had no information on Hewa Bora specifically but she said that all airlines based in 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 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.