, LAGOS, Jun 4 – A plane carrying 153 people plunged into a residential area of Nigeria’s largest city, with all those aboard presumed dead, an inferno igniting at the scene and buildings badly damaged.
A number of people on the ground were also believed killed, an emergency official said, as around 10 burnt bodies had been removed from a building damaged in the crash.
President Goodluck Jonathan declared three days of national mourning for victims of the crash and pledged an investigation as rescuers rushed to pull out survivors from the densely populated, poor neighbourhood near the airport.
The cause of the crash of the Dana Air Boeing MD83 plane was unclear, but the emergency official as well as an aviation official said the cockpit recorder had been located and handed over to police.
Officials confirmed no survivors from the plane had been found Sunday evening following the afternoon crash, but search-and-rescue missions continued.
“We presume they are dead,” Tunji Oketunbi, spokesman for the country’s Accident Investigations Bureau, told AFP when asked about the fate of those on board the flight.
He added that definitive casualty figures will only emerge “after the search and rescue” is completed.
A spokesman for the airline said the flight included 147 passengers and six crew. Skies were cloudy at the time of the crash, but there had been no rain.
Thick smoke rose from the area and flames could be seen shooting from a two-storey building. The plane crashed in a plot containing what residents described as a church, a printing shop and the two-storey residential building.
Chaos broke out as authorities sought to restore calm, with rescue workers facing heavy crowds and aggressive soldiers while trying to access smoldering wreckage.
Thousands of onlookers had partially blocked access to the crash site, prompting soldiers to try to clear the area out. They used rubber whips, their fists and even threw a wooden plank at those crowded around.
The strong-arm tactics likely did more harm than good. Looking to evade the troops’ aggression, people took off in several directions, trampling their neighbours as they tried to avoid being crushed themselves.
Some locals snaked a fire hose hoisted on their shoulders from a truck parked on the road towards the impact area.
But this effort was also interrupted by the security forces, whose aggression eventually broke up the human chain.
The area plunged into all-out pandemonium when a helicopter tried to land amid the crowd, kicking up clouds of ash and light debris that again scattered people in various directions.
After the crash, it appeared only a handful of rescue vehicles had managed to fight through the chaos to reach the site.
“I just saw the plane — it was going down and down and down,” said 23-year-old Gift Onibo.
Another resident, Tunji Dawodu, said, “I was just coming out of church around 3:30 pm when I heard a loud noise.
“I thought it was an explosion,” he said. “Then there was a huge flame from the building where the plane has crashed into.”
Some residents said it appeared that the plane had nose-dived into the neighbourhood while others described it as swaying back and forth before crashing.
“It was waving, waving, waving,” Yusuf Babatunde, 26, said at the scene. “The pilot was struggling to control it. It crashed — it just started burning.”
Wreckage including a detached wing could be seen in the neighbourhood as the inferno burned. Residents reported seeing bodies being taken out of the area as rescue workers rushed in and the helicopter landed.
“It was a Dana (airline) flight out of (the capital) Abuja to Lagos with about 153 people on board,” Nigeria’s head of civil aviation Harold Demuren told AFP. “I don’t believe there are any survivors.”
The official with the National Emergency Management Agency said the plane had crashed onto two buildings: a church and the two-storey residential structure.
At least three people had been transported for treatment with relatively minor wounds, he said, in addition to the approximately 10 burnt bodies pulled from a badly damaged building.
The president’s office said in a statement that Jonathan had “directed that the Nigerian flag be flown at half-mast for the three days of national mourning.
“Meanwhile, the president has ordered the fullest possible investigation into the crash,” the statement added.
Aviation Minister Stella Adaeze Oduah said in a statement that the flight had declared an emergency with the control tower at 3:43 pm local time (1443 GMT) when it was 11 nautical miles from the airport. It disappeared from the radar screen a minute later.
Lagos, the largest city in Africa’s most populous nation, is home to an estimated 15 million people.
The accident came after another plane crash on Saturday night in the capital of the nearby West African nation of Ghana, which saw a cargo plane overshoot a runway and hit a passenger bus, killing at least 10 people.
The Allied Air cargo plane had departed from Lagos and was to land in Accra.
Nigeria has a spotty aviation record, though Dana had been considered to be a relatively safe and reasonably efficient domestic airline.
It began flights in 2008 and had been operating up to 27 daily flights.
In London the Minister for Africa at the Foreign Office, Henry Bellingham, said: “I wish to express my extreme sadness at the news of the airplane crash in Lagos, Nigeria. My heartfelt sympathies go out to the families of the bereaved and those injured. My thoughts are with the Nigerian people at this tragic time.”