boston.com your connection to The Boston Globe

Probe eyes engine failure in crash of jet in Cameroon

Most wreckage sank 12 miles from airport

It took searchers more than 40 hours to find the Kenya Airways wreckage. Most of it was submerged in murky water and concealed by a canopy of trees. (Sunday Alamba/associated press)

MBANGA-PONGO, Cameroon -- Investigators focused yesterday on the possibility a Kenya Airways jetliner lost power in both engines during a storm just after takeoff and was trying to glide back to the airport when it plunged into a mangrove swamp 12 miles from the runway.

All 114 people on board were killed in the crash, officials in this West African nation said after picking their way along a muddy path to the site strewn with pieces of metal, bodies, and shoes.

After being delayed an hour by storms, the Kenya-bound Boeing 737-800 sent a distress signal shortly after takeoff from Douala early Saturday, then lost contact 11 to 13 minutes later. It took searchers more than 40 hours to find the wreckage, most of it submerged in murky orange-brown water and concealed by a canopy of trees.

"The plane fell head first. Its nose was buried in the mangrove swamp," said Thomas Sobakam, chief of meteorology for the Douala airport. He said the jet disintegrated on impact.

There were no survivors, said Luc Ndjodo, a local official. "We assume that a large part of the plane is under water. I saw only pieces.

A coast guard officer, Captain Francis Ekosso, said late yesterday that one of the two flight recorders had been found, which could help investigators determine what happened to Flight 507. He did not know the device's condition or whether it was the data recorder or the cockpit voice recorder.

Officials said it was too early to tell what caused the crash, but investigators concentrated on the stormy weather as a possible contributor.

Specialists were considering a theory that the jet's two engines flamed out because of the weather and the craft did not have enough altitude to glide back to the airport, said an official close to the airline's investigation in Kenya's capital, Nairobi. He agreed to discuss the matter only if not quoted by name because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

The wreckage was found late Sunday along the plane's expected flight path.

Procedures for losing all power in an aircraft call for the pilot to try to return to the airport along the same path. A nosedive crash is consistent with a plane stalling as a pilot tries to coax the aircraft 's return .

Another official close to the investigation, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed that specialists were studying whether the storm caused the engines to fail and also if a power failure caused the airliner's radar to fail.

The plane was only six months old, said Titus Naikuni, chief executive of Kenya Airways, which is considered one of Africa's safest airlines.

Debris was spread over an area roughly the size of a soccer field. Much of it was shredded beyond recognition, but smaller items were intact -- a white tennis shoe, a black purse of braided leather, and a length of orange-and-blue cloth that might have been a woman's skirt.

"It's a scene of horror," said Bernard Atebede, prefect of the town of Vouri near the site. "I saw things that should never be seen. It makes you realize the fragility of life."

He said 20 bodies had been recovered, adding that DNA testing would have to be used to determine the identities of some of the victims.

While soldiers guarded the site, medical workers and villagers collected body parts on stretchers, and then carried them on a 20-minute hike through the swamp to ambulances on the nearest road, itself just a muddy track. Trees were chopped down and laid across puddles to make the walk easier.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES