Tanzania plane crash survivors, rescuers describe heroics laced with tragedy

By Benson Jacob

BUKOBA, Tanzania (Reuters) - When the waters of Lake Victoria started gushing into the cabin of Flight PW494, passenger Mectrida Samuel knew she had to act fast. Around her, others were frantically trying free themselves and keep above the fast-rising water.

"We had a big crash and I immediately started seeing water enter the plane. Passengers started to struggle to rescue themselves," Samuel said, describing the moments after the Precision Air flight to Bukoba plunged into the lake in northern Tanzania.

"The only thing that helped me survive was that I managed to remove my seat belt and get out of the seat on time."

Minutes earlier, the twin turboprop with 43 people on board had hit a thunderstorm carrying heavy rain and powerful downdrafts.

A witness saw the plane flying unsteadily in poor visibility when it took a turn for the airport but missed, careering into the lake at 8:53 a.m. (0553 GMT). The Tanzanian authorities are yet to determine the causes of the crash.

In the hours and days after the accident, reports of survival and dramatic rescue efforts have started to emerge.

The two pilots survived the impact and remained in touch with rescue workers from the cockpit for a couple of hours, a local administrator said, before reporting that their oxygen supply was dwindling.

Onlookers, including fisherman Majaliwa Jackson, rushed to the semi-submerged aircraft to help pull out trapped passengers.

Jackson dived into the water and managed to communicate with the pilots by signalling through the window, he told the BBC.

The pilots directed him to try and smash the windscreen, but an official told him not to, he said.

He dived into the water a final time and waved goodbye.


Video footage of the scene shows fishing boats and people on the shore trying to drag the plane out of the water with ropes tied to the tail fin.

Crash survivor Samuel had managed to swim towards the back of the aircraft, where one of the cabin crew members helped open the emergency door, she said.

"After a few minutes, local fishermen came to rescue us," she said.

By the time rescue workers reached the pilots, their air supply had run out and the pair were dead, authorities said.

Another man, who had been returning from his niece's wedding in another part of the country was also amongst the dead, according his relative Alfred Tibaigana.

"We have received this tragedy of our loving relative with great sadness," Tibaigana told Reuters.

At a ceremony in a sports stadium in Bukoba town on Monday, relatives, religious leaders and government officials filed past the coffins of the 19 people who perished in the incident, each decorated with flowers and a photograph of the deceased.

The government said it will reward Jackson, who had tried in vain to rescue the pilots, for his bravery with 1 million Tanzanian shillings ($430) and hire him as a first responder.

(Reporting by Benson Jacob; Writing by Hereward Holland; Editing by Angus MacSwan)