The Tanzanian government on Thursday dismissed a preliminary report on the recent Precision Air crash in Bukoba, saying it had been published prematurely.
The report, by the state agency Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAIB), gave weight to widespread criticism of the official emergency response to the crash that happened in Lake Victoria.
Works and Transport minister Prof Makame Mbarawa told a media briefing in Dar es Salaam on Thursday that the initial accident bulletin as it is known, had not been officially sanctioned for release. The document began circulating on social media platforms on Tuesday.
According to Prof Mbarawa, parts of reports that blame the government were misrepresented and did not reflect the reality of the situation at the crash site. The accident, which happened on November 6, involved an ATR 42-500 turboprop aircraft which plunged into the lake just 500 metres from the Bukoba airport runway and killed 19 of 43 people on board.
Lack of preparedness
The minister, however, did not dispute any of the report's actual contents and even acknowledged the general lack of official preparedness for such disasters, saying the government was working on it. The AAIB operates directly under the Ministry of Works and Transport but its report highlighted questionable factors including delays in mounting official rescue operations and the absence of a control tower at the airport despite its precarious location on the edge of a lake and surrounded by hills
It noted that although the police marine unit at the nearby Bukoba port was informed about the crash 15 minutes after it happened, but the unit's only patrol boat was out on duty far from the shore and arrived at the scene more than five hours later when the rescue operations were all but completed.
The police divers then found themselves hampered further by insufficient oxygen in their cylinders. Government spokesperson Gerson Msigwa released a statement 24 hours after the preliminary bulletin hit social media, asking for the public to ignored it because "it did not come from authoritative government channels."
"The government has yet to release its own investigation report on the tragedy. Once this official version is ready the public will be informed," Mr Msigwa tweeted on Wednesday night.
‘Denial a farce’
Opposition leader Zitto Kabwe of the ACT Wazalendo party was among critics who quickly dismissed the supposed denial as a farce.
"When the government's own spokesperson goes out of his way to deny something that he himself knows full well is from his own government, it does not bode well for anybody;" Mr Zitto said.
The AAIB bulletin was the first of three reports required by international aviation rules to be produced as part of the crash investigation. An official government report will follow before year's end and a bigger investigation team led by the plane manufacturers in France will issue the final report within a year from the date of the crash.
According to Prof Mbarawa, aviation investigators from Precision Air and the Tanzanian government are already in Paris working with their counterparts from engine maker ATR and the French aviation authority to try to glean the actual cause of the crash based on conversations between the two pilots themselves and with air control operators in Mwanza as recorded on the plane's black box.
The AAIB bulletin cited "wind shear (downdraft)" as a possible primary cause of the crash, but also asserted that more passengers could have been saved if emergency workers had been better prepared and proper rescue operations launched faster.
It said the 24 survivors of the crash were rescued by Precision Air flight attendants who opened one of the aircraft's two doors from the inside.
"The rear flight attendant succeeded in unlatching the rear passenger door and, with the help of a muscular passenger, they opened the door. This passenger then stood on the doorway and extricated most of the survivors from the wreckage into the canoes and fishing boats that had arrived at the scene," the report said.
According to the AAIB bulletin, the lack of a control tower at Bukoba airport also played a huge hand in the tragedy since all landing aircraft had to "use the services of the Mwanza Approach on frequency 122.8MHz until they report Bukoba insight."
"Subsequently the flight crew switch from the said frequency to 118.2 MHz which is the unmanned frequency for approach and landing at Bukoba,” it explained.
Blamed the pilot
The report also blamed the pilot for attempting to land despite the erratic weather conditions that also included thick clouds.
“He (pilot) should have chosen to divert back to Mwanza or circle around until the weather improved,” it said.
The abrupt change of weather as the plane entered the Bukoba zone "reduced visibility from 10 kilometres (6.2 miles) to 2 kilometres (1.2 miles) and the aircraft circled around for about 20 minutes hoping that conditions would improve before finally deciding to attempt a landing,” the report said.
It quoted some surviving passengers as saying visibility had improved to the extent that they could see the runway before the plane crashed.
“The aircraft was seen circling around areas in Bukoba, Misenyi and Muleba districts. It was later observed to make a normal approach to runway, but it struck the lake surface before reaching the threshold,” the report said.