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AGONY AND TEARS
Relatives mourn Kenya air crash victims
By Alexandra Zavis
ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast: They met in high school. After dating forseven years, he finally proposed. She accepted. And then she wasgone. Shamira Mohamed, 24, was a flight attendant on Kenya AirwaysFlight 431, which slammed into the Atlantic just moments aftertakeoff Sunday from this tropical port city. For her fiance, MohamedWaseem, news of the crash was just the start of the agony. "Up to nowwe don't know if she is alive or dead, if the body has been found,nothing," Waseem said Wednesday (January 2, 2000) as he shakily lit acigarette upon arrival at Abidjan's international airport fromNairobi, Kenya. The Airbus 310 was carrying 179 people destined forLagos, Nigeria, when it tumbled from the sky. Only 10 survivors werefound and 86 bodies retrieved.
Ivorianand French teams have located both the plane's "black boxes" &endash;the flight data and cockpit voice recorder &endash; off the coast,said Laurent Kako, the Ivorian aviation official in charge of theinvestigation. Searchers were preparing for a recovery operation, hesaid. Dazed and exhausted, 150 relatives of the dead and missingstaggered off a Kenya Airways flight Wednesday from Nairobi and Lagoshoping to confirm the fate of their loved ones and bring their bodieshome. One woman dressed in black collapsed into the arms of herwaiting relatives and burst into tears. "Her mother and son were onthe flight," said Petra Kaumi, wiping away tears of her own as sheconsoled her Kenyan cousin. "The mother's body has been found, but weare still looking for the boy."
The airline had buses ready to transport the families to theluxury Hotel Ivoire, where they will stay until missing relativeshave been identified. There, they waited in line at a receptioncenter to fill out forms and hand over snapshots to help officialsidentify bodies.
Others, tired of waiting, went to the city's main morguethemselves hoping to locate friends and relatives. They waited forhours there, too, while officials performed autopsies and completedpaperwork. Razak Ismail, a Nigerian, spent the entire day thereTuesday and was back again Wednesday with his brother hoping tolocate the body of his sister-in-law. "We are Muslims. We need tobury her," he said, referring to the religious stipulation that thedead be buried within 24 hours.
Morgue head Albert Zeze explained there were only three doctorsavailable to conduct the autopsies. By Wednesday afternoon, just 26of the recovered bodies had been identified. Relatives also decrieddelays in the rescue operation. Some of the 10 survivors clung tobits of wreckage for hours before they were rescued, and at least oneswam to shore. Many were saved by volunteers trawling the waters intheir own boats. In contrast, when an Alaska Airlines jetliner wentdown off the coast of California on Monday, dozens of Coast Guard,Navy and private ships arrived immediately, but found no survivors.In Abidjan, many relatives knew nothing about counselors, manifestsor crisis centers. They were available, but no one told them. "InAfrica, we're so unfortunate," said Raliatou Atanda, an Ivorian whoreturned three times to the morgue to look for his niece. "Even therescue operation was hampered by a lack of resources. I'm sure morepeople could have been saved."
Ivorian officials defended their response, while acknowledging theseaside airport had no rescue boats on hand. They also pointed outthe accident happened at night, and on a Sunday. "But I was informedand (rescuers) went to the site as soon as possible," said thedirector of the Ivorian civil aviation authority, Jean KouassiAbonouan. For Waseem, however, explanations were not a priority. Hejust wants to be able to bury his fiance. "She was very bubbly, neverliked to stay at home," he remembered. "The only reason I agreed towait two years to marry her is because this was her dream job. Andshe is gone."
© Copyright 2000. The Associated Press
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