KHARTOUM, Sudan (AP) – Sudanese investigators on Wednesday were trying to determine what caused a jetliner that had just landed in a thunderstorm to veer off a runway and burst into flames in Sudan’s capital.
At least 29 people were killed inside the burning plane, while 171 managed to escape, said Sudan Civil Aviation Authority spokesman Abdel Hafez Abdel Rahim Mahmoud to The Associated Press, adding that 14 still remained unaccounted for.
Many passengers fleeing the burning plane did bother to pass through customs, making the toll initially difficult to ascertain.
By Wednesday morning, the fire has been completely extinguished and civil defense officials were now examining the wreckage to determine the causes of the crash, police spokesman Maj. Gen. Mohammed Abdel Majid al-Tayeb told the official SUNA news agency.
The Sudan Airways jetliner appeared to have gone off the runway after landing at Khartoum International Airport, and several loud explosions resounded as fire raced through the aircraft, an Associated Press reporter at the scene said.
The roaring blaze dwarfed the Airbus A310’s shattered fuselage as firefighters sprayed water, Sudanese TV footage showed. Ambulances and firetrucks rushed to the scene, and media were kept away.
One survivor said the landing was “rough,” and there was a sharp impact several minutes later. “The right wing was on fire,” said the passenger, who did not give his name. He said smoke got into the cockpit and some people started opening the emergency exits. Soon, fire engulfed the plane, he told Sudanese television.
Passenger Kamal Eddin Mohammed said that “as we landed, the engine burst into flame, I was sitting right next to it.”
“It was horror inside the plane,” Mohammed told Al-Jazeera TV.
A sandstorm had hit the area with 20 mph winds between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. and there was a thunderstorm and similar winds at the time of the crash around 9 p.m. local time, said Elaine Yang, a meteorologist with the San Francisco-based Weather Underground, a private weather service. But there were differing reports on the role weather played.
The head of Sudanese police, Mohammad Najib, said bad weather “caused the plane to crash land, split into two and catch fire.”
Youssef Ibrahim, director of the Khartoum airport, disputed that bad weather was to blame and told Sudanese TV that the plane “landed safely” and the pilot was talking to the control tower and getting further instructions when the accident occurred.
“One of the (plane’s) engines exploded and the plane caught fire,” Ibrahim said. He blamed the accident on technical problems, but didn’t elaborate.
Airbus said in a statement that it was sending a team of specialists to Khartoum to help in the investigation. It said the plane involved in the accident was 18 years old and had been operated by Sudan Airways since September.
France’s Inquiry and Analysis Bureau, known by its French initials BEA, is also taking part in the inquiry because the plane was made by France-based Airbus.
Civil aviation asked its counterpart in Amman, Jordan, the origin of the flight, for the passenger manifest to determine who was actually on the flight, as the original was destroyed in the crash, SUNA reported.
Khartoum airport reopened on noon Wednesday. Sudan has a poor aviation safety record. In May, a plane crash in a remote area of southern Sudan killed 24 people, including key members of the southern Sudanese government.
In July 2003, a Sudan Airways Boeing 737 en route from Port Sudan to Khartoum crashed soon after takeoff, killing all 115 people on board.
The Airbus A310 is a twin-engine, widebody plane used by a number of carriers around the world. Typically configured with about 220 seats, it is a shorter version of the popular A300.
An Airbus spokesman in Paris declined immediate comment on the crash.
In July 2006, an A310 operated by Russia’s S7 Airlines went off the runway after landing in Irkutsk, smashed into adjacent buildings and caught fire, killing 123 of the 203 people aboard.
Although deaths from air travel have fallen over the past two years, the number of serious jetliner accidents increased last year for the first time in a decade, according to a report last month by the International Air Transport Association. Nearly half of all jet accidents occurred on landing in 2007.