A cargo plane crashed onto a busy downtown street just after takeoff Monday, killing more than 200 people.
Most of the victims were women and children packing the city center market of corrugated iron and wooden shacks.
"We found 217 bodies at the market," said Vincent Nicod of the International Committee of the Red Cross. "I think there are 32 more bodies at hospital morgues in the town. So I don't think there are less than 250 people in all."
If that death toll is confirmed, the crash could rank among history's worst civil-aviation disasters.
As darkness fell over Kinshasa, a chaotic, crumbling city of 6-million, calls went out over national radio and television for people to donate blood.
The largest state-run hospital in Kinshasa, Mama Yemo, had to turn away victims for lack of equipment and medical supplies.
"Bring your blood to save the injured. They need us to survive," Dr. Maholo Pelagie of the Kinshasa blood bank begged over state radio.
Government officials said the pilot and two crew members were Russian and all three had survived the crash.
Information Minister Masegabio Nzanzu said the plane, a Russian-made Antonov-32 twin-turboprop, was owned by the private cargo company African Air.
All cargo flights were grounded until an investigation is complete.
Witnesses said the plane _ belching flames and clouds of black smoke _ plowed through the market for about 300 yards before stopping its skid.
The minister of transportation, Bernardin Munguldeaka, told Radio Zaire that the plane was nearly 600 pounds overweight. The An-32 is designed for payloads of about 10,000 pounds.
"The aircraft tried to take off, but it only got a few meters off the ground, then it disappeared and there was an explosion," said Gothie Mukoka, who was at Ndolo airport when the plane went down.
The plane skidded 600 feet across the street, smashing through cars and stalls in the Simba Zikita market before screeching to a stop.
The airport, used for private planes and cargo flights, is in the heart of Kinshasa, 3 miles from hotels and embassies. It used to be Kinshasa's international airport.
"The plane just piled into the market," said John Escodi, a spokesman at the U.S. Embassy in Kinshasa. "It was the worst possible time for that market because it was very busy and it's located right at the end of the runway, across the street from the runway."
Kinshasa is covered with such markets, sprawling open-air mazes of hawkers selling anything from live chickens to clothing. Most of the dead were on the ground, said Kamanga Mutond, a Zaire radio reporter who visited the crash scene.
"The plane was totally destroyed," he said.
The crash was the second in two months involving a Zaire-based cargo plane, and the sixth West African crash in recent months.
On Dec. 18, a jet operated by Zaire's Trans Service Airlift, a charter company, crashed in Angola, killing at least 136 people.
On Dec. 3, a Cameroon Airlines Boeing 737 on a commercial flight slammed into swamps while trying to land at Cameroon's international airport, and 72 people died. Three Nigerian jets also have crashed in recent months, the latest in November.
On New Year's Day, 32 people were killed in Kinshasa when a truck crammed with people careened into a ditch. The country's public transportation system is in a shambles, so commuters often rely on huge trucks to get around.
Etienne Kokolo, a Zairian news photographer who was at the scene Monday, said people were stunned over yet another fatal crash.
"People were crying. It was terrible _ terrible," he said. "It hasn't even been a month since that (truck) killed (32) people. We just don't understand it."
_ Information from the Associated Press and Reuters was used in this report.