An international salvage force including United Nations and French troops rushed to secure the site of the downed Air Algerie MD-83, which crashed in Mali en route to Algiers from Burkina Faso, leaving no survivors.
The group, which includes more than 200 French and Malian soldiers, was deployed to a thinly populated semi-arid area near the Burkina Faso border where Flight AH5017 crashed at about 2 a.m. yesterday. The plane, carrying 110 passengers and six crew, was formally identified by the French military earlier today, which has secured the site and found one black box.
“The plane has disintegrated and we have only seen fragments and pieces of bodies,” Burkina Faso Prime Minister Luc-Adolphe Tiao said at a press conference in Ouagadougou, the capital. Identifying bodies may be difficult, he said.
The loss of the plane caps a week of aviation disasters that includes the downing of a Malaysian Air Boeing Co. 777 over eastern Ukraine on July 17 following a suspected missile strike, killing all 298 people on board. On July 23, an ATR-72 turbo-prop crashed on the Penghu Islands in Taiwan, leaving 48 people dead. Recovering the wreckage and may prove difficult as some of the debris is covered by rainwater, Burkinabe authorities said.
While weather may have been a factor, “it is too early to draw any conclusions,” French President Francois Hollande said at a press conference following a meeting of the inner cabinet in Paris today. “There are unfortunately no survivors.”
According to Seyibo Zamtou, a representative of continent-wide air navigation security agency Asecna, the plane was flying at 800 kilometers an hour (500 miles) and began slowing down and losing altitude in “an abnormal fall.”
The site of the crash is about 80 kilometers away from the Mali town of Gossi, and accessing the area can take as long as six hours because of the rugged terrain and adverse weather conditions, according to French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.
“This has been a very sad week for everyone involved with aviation,” International Air Transport Association Chief Executive Officer Tony Tyler said in a statement. The Air Algerie incident takes the potential 2014 death toll to 680 travelers, higher than the 12-month totals for the past three years, according to air-safety consultants Ascend Worldwide.
Some 54 French citizens were aboard the Air Algerie plane, according to the government. Communications Minister Alain Edouard Traore said 28 Burkina Faso citizens were on board, and declared a national mourning. Other passengers include eight people from Lebanon, six Algerians, five Canadians and four Germans, Swiftair said. Two citizens of Luxembourg were also on board, according to the country’s Foreign Ministry.
The aircraft asked the control tower in Niamey, Niger, to divert because of a storm about 40 minutes after taking off, said Youssouf Ouedraogo, the Burkina Faso foreign minister, without saying where he got the information. Amidou Zerbo, a forecaster at the Ouagadougou airport, said the zone was stormy when the plane crashed and “dangerous from an aeronautic point of view” because of the rainy season.
Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali share a border in the southern Sahel, a semi-arid zone below the Sahara desert that is sparsely populated and with few roads. The Sahel stretches more than 5,400 kilometers across Africa from Senegal in the west to Sudan in the east.
MD-83 planes belong to a family of twin-engine, short- to medium-range, single-aisle commercial airliners that were introduced in 1980. They were built by McDonnell Douglas Corp., acquired by Boeing Co. in 1997. The Swiftair MD-83 was built in 1996 and equipped with two Pratt & Whitney JT8D-219 PW engines.
In a statement Boeing said it was “ready to provide technical assistance to government authorities who will investigate the accident.”
Other incidents involving the model include the loss of an Alaska Airlines flight over the Pacific ocean in 2000, caused by inadequate maintenance, which killed all 88 people on board. In 2012, a Dana Airlines flight from the Nigerian capital, Abuja, crashed into the heavily populated Agege suburb of Lagos killing 153 people on board and 10 on the ground.
Swiftair, a private company created in 1986, has more than 400 employees and has a fleet of more than 30 planes, which include models such as the Boeing 727 and 737, MD-83, ATR-72/-42, Embraer 120 and Metroliner, according to its website. Customers listed on the site include Fedex Corp. and United Parcel Service Inc., and the company also services corporate clients and tour operators.
Air Algerie has had seven fatal airplane accidents since 1960, according to the Aviation Safety Network website. The most recent accident happened in 2003, when 102 passengers and crew were killed on a Boeing 737, according to the network. The plane stalled on a flight to Algiers and crashed into rocky terrain beyond the runway, ASN said.
While only one western-built jet hull was lost in Africa last year, the continent’s safety record is still worse than anywhere else in the world, according to the IATA. There were 7.45 accidents per million flights in Africa in 2013, compared with a global rate of one accident for every 2.4 million flights, IATA said in April.