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The Forgotten Disaster in Zaire

By Ethan Rider
June 13, 2006

Ethan Rider returns with an expertly researched yet painfully thorough account of the worst aviation disaster ever to occur on African soil. Airliners.net considers this to be the most well-researched, complete account of this tragedy ever published, anywhere in the world.

It has been over 10 years since this, one of the most horrific aviation catastrophes is history, occurred, and still, it is overlooked and underappreciated. What lessons have been learned in 10 years? What preventative measures have been taken? Why does the world so easily turn a blind eye to tragedies in Africa? Sadly, despite the loss of life and the release of the culprits, these questions still go unanswered...


January 8, 1996, Kinshasa, Zaire (currently the Democratic Republic of Congo)
297 fatalities (2 of 6 onboard + 225-350 bystanders).


In the early afternoon of Monday January 8, an Air Africa Antonov-32 was preparing for a flight from Ndolo airport in Kinshasa to Kahemba, Zaire. The cargo plane, owned by Moscow Airways and operated by a Russian crew, was packed with supplies and a full tank of fuel.1 During the takeoff roll, the aircraft only reached roughly half the ideal takeoff speed, yet began to lift as it reached the end of the runway. A Ndolo airport employee who witnessed the takeoff said, “[The plane] did not even get its nose up. It was going as fast it could but didn't even manage to take off. When it put on its reverse engines it was too late.”2


The Ill-Fated Plane
Photo © Werner Fischdick

Simbazikita was the name of an open-air vegetable market which was made up of tin and wood shacks in which vendors sold their goods.3 Located in central Kinshasa, Simbazikita was particularly popular, despite its location adjacent to Ndolo airport. Unfortunately, when the overloaded An-32 was struggling through its takeoff roll, the market was reaching its busiest hour.

Because it was overloaded, the Antonov was unable to remain airborne and came crashing down into the Simbazikita market, sliding for 330 feet in a fiery mass.4 The airplane slammed into the market, ignited, and tore through wooden shacks, cars and pedestrians, most of whom were women and children. Because of the large amount of petroleum onboard, the resulting fire burned intensely and significantly increased the death toll. Twisted metal, produce, and mutilated bodies, limbs and heads lay scattered and burning across the entire area.5 Officials from both the Red Cross and the Zairean government characterized the scene as “indescribable.”6

Click here for full size photo!
Imagine this barreling through a crowded marketplace
Photo © Vassili B. Savinov

Almost instantly, the scene descended into total chaos. Many witnesses to the crash began rescue efforts, while others desperately began searching for their friends and family. Some were more greedy and remorseless: “looters ripped jewels off the charred limbs of victims and scooped up the scattered market goods as flames whipped around them.”7


© Cheri Cherin

Miraculously, four crewmembers survived, and were forced to defend themselves against a murderous mob as they emerged from the smoldering wreck.8 The crew was attacked again while recovering in the hospital.9

Nearly 500 people were injured, and hospitals in the area were instantly overcrowded and even began turning away victims.10 For example, 200 victims were brought to Mama Yemo, Zaire’s largest hospital, which was designed to accommodate only 60 people.11 Dr. Richard Btiteyau stated, “Most of these people should now recover, but we don't have what we need to treat them. We had to appeal to the public for donations of blood and for equipment, as well. We don't have gloves. We don't have medicines. We don't have bandages—nothing.”12


© Detroit News (AP)

The bodies amongst the wreckage were so mutilated that only 66 were identified.13 Many of the fatalities were women who were vendors at the market, and the primary income providers for their families.14 Samba, a Zairean widower left with four children said, “One of my wife's aunts was already [at the morgue] and asked me if I could recognize the feet of my wife. I said, yes, of course, after living with someone for so long. When she lifted the blanket I saw that it was her feet. That was all that was found of her.”15 About 100 “unclaimed” bodies were buried at a ceremony attended by Zairean President Mobutu Sese Seko.16


© Cheri Cherin

The number of fatalities on the ground is startlingly varied, based on the source cited; as a result, the tragic loss of life associated with this disaster is not always appropriately conveyed. A minimum of 225 market shoppers were killed, derived from the 225 counts of murder charged to Nicolai Kazarin and Andrei Gouskov, two of the pilots.17 Two hundred ninety-seven fatalities is the most credible amount, recognized in the Civil Aviation Authority Safety Review 1990-1999, and by the Red Cross, CNN, and the Associated Press.18 Three hundred forty-eight is also a very common number cited, as is “at least 350.”19 Some reports have claimed more than 600 victims; witnesses declared more than 1,000.20 However, because of the chaos that ensued at the crash site, the “beleagured” nature of Zaire’s civil aviation industry, and the generally unstable, unreliable nature of the Zairean government during this time period, the official death toll remains an uncertainty.21


© Detroit News (AP)

Investigations into the crash revealed that the airplane was overloaded by 595 pounds.22 Additionally, the pilots admitted that Air Africa did not have permission to operate the flight, and borrowed clearance papers from Scibe Air.23 Apparently, the flight was actually bound for Angola, and filled with supplies for Jonas Savimbi's Union For the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) rebels.24 Kazarin said, “These flights are illegal. I’ve done it many times before, but I don't know if there were weapons on board—we didn't check the boxes.”25 Further investigations revealed that Zairean pilots were often awarded bonuses for flying overloaded flights, and that the crewmembers weren’t even qualified as pilots and possibly drunk at the time of takeoff.26

Nicolai Kazarin attended his manslaughter trial in “a worn t-shirt, frayed track-suit bottoms and flip flops.” Kazarin’s defense was that a “Zairean official,” who had since disappeared, falsified documents and illegally overloaded the plane. Both pilots admitted that they were on an illegal mission, yet remained blatantly remorseless regarding their responsibility. Kazarin stated: “The market shouldn’t have been there [at the end of the runway], so why should they be entitled to compensation? If a man lays on the railway tracks and is killed by a train, should he get compensation?”27 Guskov, “a gum-chewing 23-year-old who bounce[d] in his seat like a fidgety teen-ager,” declared that a Zairean crewmember lied about the weight of their cargo: ‘He gave me the papers. It said two tons ... but really there was about 11.’”28 Kazarin and Guskov also blamed each other for the crash.29

Gouskov and Kazarin were convicted of homicide in 1996 and were each sentenced to a maximum of two-years in a Kinshasa prison—about 2½ days for each fatality.30 Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Viktor Viktorovich Posuvalyuk reported that Russia appointed lawyers for the pilots, argued for their release on bail, and when that failed, asserted that they be permitted to serve their terms in Russian jails, because, “We assume that the conditions in the Zairian jails are appalling, beginning from climate and so on.”31 Scibe Airlift and African Air were punished with fines totaling about $1.4 million, to be paid to the injured and those who lost relatives.32

Aside from the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, no other aviation incident has claimed the lives of so many innocent bystanders.33

Planes from Zaire (D.R. Congo) are not permitted to fly in the United States due to safety concerns.34


© Cheri Cherin



Images

“RA-26222 at Moskva-Sheremetyevo Airport (SVO).” July 1994. Werner Fischdick
Collection, Moenchengladbach.

Photographs of the Wreckage. Jan. 1996. The Detroit News (AP). DetNews.com. 19 May 2001
http://detroitnews.com/menu/stories/31396.htm (page no longer accessible).

Cheri Cherin (Joseph Kikonda). "Catastrophe De Ndolo." 1999.



Works Cited

1“Aviation Safety Network,” ed. Harro Ranter and Fabian Lujuan, Aviation Safety Network Feb. 2002, 17 Apr. 2002 http://aviation-safety.net/database/1996/960108-0.htm.
“250 Feared Killed in Zaire Crash,” CNN World News 8 Jan. 1996, 17 Apr. 2002 http://www.cnn.com/WORLD/9601/zaire_crash/index.html.

2“260 Die as Cargo Plane Crash Lands On Market,” The Australian (AFP/Reuters) 10 Jan. 1996.

3“260 Die as Cargo Plane Crash Lands On Market.”

4“250 Feared Killed in Zaire Crash.”

5Chris Mcgreal, “Crash Survivors Suspect Cover-Up; Russian Pilots and Gun-Running are Blamed for Disaster,” The Guardian 29 Apr. 1996, Foreign: 8.
Andrew Purvis, “Flight Path to Disaster: Zaire’s Rampant Corruption and Lax Regulation Help Bring on the Worst Airplane Crash in African History,” Time.Com 22 Jan. 1996, 17 Apr. 2002 http://www.time.com/time/international/1996/960122/aviation.html.

6“260 Die as Cargo Plane Crash Lands On Market.”

7“Flight Path to Disaster.” “297 Die as Cargo Jet Crashes Into Market,” The Advertiser 10 Jan 1996.

8“Crash Kills at Least 350 in Zaire Market,” AVWeb NewsWire ed. Paul Bertorelli, Mar. 1996, 17 Apr. 2002 http://www.avweb.com/newswire/news9603.html.
Tina Susman, “No Relief for Victims or Accused in Zaire Airport Disaster,” The Associated Press 6 Jan. 1997: PM Cycle, International News.

9“260 Die as Cargo Plane Crash Lands On Market.”

10“Aid Group: Zaire Plane Crash Toll is Higher,” CNN World News 10 Jan. 1996, 17 Apr. 2002 http://www.cnn.com/WORLD/Newsbriefs/9601/01-10/index.html.
“Crash Kills at Least 350 in Zaire Market.”
“Flight Path to Disaster.”
“Zairians say Fatal Flight Unauthorized,” CNN World News 9 Jan. 1996, 17 Apr. 2002 http://www.cnn.com/WORLD/9601/zaire_crash/01-09/index.html.

11“Bodies Clog Morgues After Plane Disaster,” Nationwide News Pty Limited 11 Jan. 1996.

12“Bodies Clog Morgues After Plane Disaster.”

13PlaneCrashInfo.com ed. Richard Kebabijan, 17 Apr. 2002, 17 Apr. 2002 http://www.planecrashinfo.com/1996/1996-1.htm.
McGreal, Chris. “Crash Survivors Suspect Cover-Up; Russian Pilots and Gun-Running are Blamed for Disaster,” The Guardian 29 April 1996, final ed.: Foreign 8.

14Susman.

15Susman.

16“Death Toll 350 from Zaire Air Crash Horror,” Hobart Mercury (Australia) 12 Jan. 1996.

17McGreal.

18Civil Aviation Authority, Aviation Safety Review 1990-1999, (London: Westward Documedia Limited, 2000) 13 http://www.srg.caa.co.uk/documents/cap701.pdf.
“Zairians say Fatal Flight Unauthorized.” Susman.

19B. Kabwe-Mwilambwe, N. Lenge Katwamba, M. Ekutsu Mohobo, “An Airplane Crash into Type-K Ndolo Market: What Lesson for the Future?” Journal of Prehospital and Disaster Medicine (Mar. 2002), 17 Apr. 2002 http://pdm.medicine.wisc.edu/Mainzabstracts.html#airplane.
“Aid Group: Zaire Plane Crash Toll is Higher.”
“Crash Kills at Least 350 in Zaire Market.”

20“Crash Kills at Least 350 in Zaire Market.”

21Mario Fiorito, “Aircraft Crew Held as Market Crash Toll Hits 300,” The Australian (AFP) 11 Jan. 1996.

22Aviation Safety Network. “Crash Kills at Least 350 in Zaire Market.”
“Zairians say Fatal Flight Unauthorized.”

23Aviation Safety Network.
“Zairians say Fatal Flight Unauthorized.”

24McGreal.
“Zairians say Fatal Flight Unauthorized.”

25McGreal.

26“260 Die as Cargo Plane Crash Lands On Market.”
McGreal.

27McGreal.

28Susman.

29Susman.

30“Crash Update.” USA Today 16 April 1996, First ed.: A4.
“On the Fly…” AVWeb NewsWire, ed. Paul Bertorelli, Nov. 1996, 17 Apr. 2002 http://www.avweb.com/newswire/news9611.html.
AirDisaster.com, ed. Chris Kilroy, 17 Apr. 2002, 17 Apr. 2002 http://www.airdisaster.com/cgi_bin/view_details.cgi?date=01081996&airline=African+Air.
“Russian Federation Foreign Ministry Press Briefing January 09, 1997,” Official Kremlin Int’l News Broadcast 9 Jan. 1997.

31“Foreign Ministry Press Briefing,” Official Kremlin Int’l News Broadcast 20 Aug. 1996: News/Current Events.

32“Appeals Court Hears Case of Russian Crash Pilots,” Agence Frnace Presse—English(AFP) 7 Jan 1997: International News.
“Russian Pilots Jailed Over Plane Crash,” Agence France Presse—English 6 Aug. 1996: International News.

33United States, House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Report of the Joint Inquiry into the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Congress) 142.

34“Zairians say Fatal Flight Unauthorized.”




Joseph Kikonda, also known as Cheri Cherin, was born in 1955 in Kinshasa (Democratic Republic Congo, formerly called Zaire). He studied at the Academie des Beaux Arts in Kinshasa under the Austrian ceramics-artist Peter Weihs. During this time he began painting posters in his residential-quarter Ndjili. His pictures were seen on the walls of bars, barbershops and small boutiques. He also created impressive pictures of daily life and paintings with very serious content. Today he is one of the best known painters in Kinshasa and a teacher of many young talented artists.
Some of his work can be viewed here.


To contact the author, send an email to TheAmericanPatriot@gmail.com.

Photographs of Cheri Cherin's artwork were taken by Armin Prinz

Written by
Ethan Rider

In addition to being an avid aviation enthusiast, Ethan Rider is a writer with many published works, and has devoted many years to the study of this forgotten tragedy.

4 User Comments:
Username: BSchlossberg [User Info]
Posted 2006-06-19 22:15:52 and read 32768 times.

Very good job! This was an appalling incident. I don't even know what adjective to use, and I don't remember even being aware of it before. Just one perspective - the article attempted and succeeded in doing something very difficult. That is, giving a factual and detailed account of something that happened and yet allowing the horror of the human tragedy to "pour through" the facts. A combination of words, photos, and the stark artwork of Cheri Cherin. There was a movie some time ago, I forgot the name, of a plane crash, showing the crash process in reverse. The picture starts with the few survivors walking throught the field and the plane a burning wreck. Later in the picture we see the plane before the crash, in the process of burning and falling apart, and then, we see the initial explosion or whatever that caused the rest. But I just remember how stark and inescapable the mayhem on board. This article, in my estimation, does the same for the mayhem on the ground. Too much! The pilots literally got away with murder. How that was possible is all to real in our world.

Username: Alessandro [User Info]
Posted 2006-06-23 23:16:42 and read 32768 times.

Moscow airways had their license revoked in Russia but had already sneaked out this plane, they "lended" papers from another airline to continue to fly. Shame...:(

Username: Bennett123 [User Info]
Posted 2006-07-14 00:25:51 and read 32768 times.


Words do not often fail me.

Username: Mohavewolfpup [User Info]
Posted 2006-10-30 10:54:04 and read 32768 times.

very sad disaster indeed, and thanks for writing about it. this just goes to show how accidents that can be worse then a jet liner skidding off a runway into a ditch are always buried when a 747 or anything else drops from the sky. It's remote location also doesn't help any, as anyone can take a "meh, it's over there attitude"

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