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Eyewitnesses tell of hijack crash

JOHANNESBURG, Nov. 25 -- South African doctors vacationing in the Comoros Islands watched an ill-fated Ethiopian Airways jet plunge into the ocean not far from their seaside hotel, then rushed to help survivors, a published report said Monday. Hennie van der Walt told The Star newspaper in Johannesburg how they treated the survivors of the hijacked Boeing 767 that ran out of fuel Saturday and crashed into the Indian Ocean about 980 feet (300 meters) from their hotel. Authorities said 54 people survived the crash. At least 70 people were killed and 51 people were missing and feared dead. 'One minute everything was normal and suddenly this huge jumbo (jet) just fell out of the sky,' van der Walt said. 'It broke in two pieces. They floated for a while, but then stated sinking. 'We didn't know whether it was going to explode or not.' Van der Walt said he and another doctor turned the bar of the Le Galawa Sun Hotel into a temporary clinic for the survivors before they were transferred to the local El Maarout Hospital. 'The first passengers brought to shore were not that badly injured, but (passengers on) the last few boats were very bad or dead,' van der Walt said. Ethiopian Airlines issued a statement Sunday saying at least 70 people were killed when the Nairobi-bound jet plunged into the ocean. The pilot, Leul Abate, 42, told authorities the hijackers were of African origin and spoke French. He said one had a small ax apparently taken from the airplane's safety gear and one was armed with a fire extinguisher.

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The third man had a bottle of whiskey in one hand and claimed he had a bomb in the other, but the pilot said he never saw a bomb. Shortly after takeoff the trio made their way to the cockpit where they forcibly removed copilot Yonas Mekuria, 35, tossing him into the passenger cabin. The plane was carrying only enough fuel for the less than two-hour flight between Addis Ababa and Nairobi, but the hijackers refused to believe the pilot when he told them there wasn't enough fuel to make it to Australia. As the hijacking unfolded, the plane circled over East Africa. One of the hijackers became agitated and told the pilot he would fly the plane himself, taking away the pilot's headphones to prevent him from talking to the Comoros Islands control tower. The plane finally ran out of fuel and plunged into the Indian Ocean off the Comoros Islands, between the northeast coast of Mozambique and the northern tip of Madagascar, some 200 miles (322 km) off the east coast of Africa. Le Galawa Sun hotel manager Christian Antoine told The Star that 'the tail of the plane is still sticking out the water. The plane is drifting closer to the hotel. Guests have been watching (Sunday) as rescuers were cutting the wreck and finding more bodies. 'If this had happened anywhere else on the island, no one would have survived. It was lucky that it crashed in shallow water and that rescue and medical help was available within 10 minutes,' Antoine said. Ethiopian Airlines said Sunday night that two hijackers, both Ethiopian nationals, were among those rescued and had been detained after they were identified by surviving crew members.

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