The Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 767 with 175 people aboard crashed just off a beach in this Indian Ocean island chain on Saturday. Officials said 52 people survived and 123 others were feared dead, including several Americans.
Two hijackers were arrested and the third was presumed to have died.
Witnesses said the plane hit the water four times -- flipping over at least once -- before breaking apart in the sea. Three large sections of the aircraft sat in the water about 100 yards from the beach. Other parts of the plane sank beyond a reef, about 500 yards from shore.
Co-pilot Yonas Mekuria said the hijackers refused to allow the pilot to land at the airport in Moroni, about five miles from the crash site, even though he was insisting the plane was running out of fuel.
"He wanted to go there but they wouldn't let him," Mekuria told The Associated Press from his hospital bed where he was being treated for cuts and bruises. "It was pretty bizarre. I didn't know what they were doing. They were interfering with procedures, grabbing at the instruments. They snatched the radio from the jack."
In his last message to the passengers, Capt. Leul Abate said he had lost one engine, the plane was out of fuel and he was going to ditch in the ocean.
"People were screaming, some were praying," said Bisrat Alemu, an Ethiopian passenger who was traveling to Nairobi.
The hijackers commandeered Flight 961 shortly after it took off from the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, on a flight to Abidjan, Ivory Coast with stops in Nairobi, Kenya; Brazzaville, Congo; and Lagos, Nigeria.
They said they were armed with a bomb, an ax and a fire extinguisher.
Bisrat said the hijackers began to yell inside the aircraft, then stormed onto the flight deck. Shortly after they took control, the hijackers made an announcement in Amharic, the Ethiopian language
"They said, `We escaped from prison. We are against the government. We are hijacking the plane. We have an explosive. If anybody moves, we'll explode it,'" said Bisrat.
Mekuria, the co-pilot, said one appeared drunk and carried a bottle of whisky in his hand that he apparently looted from the duty-free cart on the plane. He said the hijackers' only demand was that they be flown to Australia.
The Boeing 767 crashed around midday near the Galawa Beach Hotel, a tropical resort 25 miles north of the capital, Moroni, on the main island of Grande Comore.
George Marray, the chief pilot for the Comoros national airline, credited the Ethiopian pilot with bringing the plane down on a barren island next to a resort hotel where there was plenty of help.
He said the Moroni airport did not know where the plane was because there was no contact and because the airport, which has only light traffic, has no radar.
A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, said Sunday that there were four Americans aboard the aircraft, three of whom survived.
The U.S. consul-general in Bombay, India, Frank Huddle, and his wife, Shania, were among the survivors, said Carrie Newton, the duty officer at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, India.