LAGOS, June 4 – Nigerian rescuers recovered burnt human remains as investigators probed for clues Monday after a plane slammed into a Lagos neighbourhood, with all 153 on board killed and more feared dead on the ground.
Police fired tear gas at a surging crowd seeking to get a look at the crash site at one point on Monday morning, while at other spots around the site people desperately sought access to the wreckage to locate missing relatives.
They were denied access, with rescue workers combing the scene of the crash — the world’s worst air disaster so far this year — saying the bodies were unrecognisable.
“I just want to be sure of how he died,” one man told rescue workers of his brother.
Wreckage still smouldered at the grisly site near the airport in one of Africa’s largest cities as two cranes cleared away debris and a few thousand onlookers gathered.
Local media reported that the crash of the Dana Air Boeing MD83 was Nigeria’s worst since 1992, when a military C-130 went down after takeoff in Lagos, killing all 200 on board.
There have been a number of other crashes with more than 100 victims over the past decade in Nigeria but the most recent was in 2005.
Rescue workers had pulled at least 62 bodies from the wreckage by Monday morning, a rescue official said.
President Goodluck Jonathan, who declared three days of national mourning, was due to visit the crash site Monday, a spokesman said.
At least one of the plane’s two cockpit recorders had been recovered, officials said. The aviation minister said the flight had declared an emergency 11 nautical miles from the airport but the cause of the crash remained unclear.
The flight disappeared from radar one minute after having declared the emergency at 3:43 pm local time (1443 GMT), a statement from the minister said.
An aviation source said the pilot had told the tower that he was experiencing problems with the plane, but further details were not yet clear.
The plane, which was flying to Lagos from the capital Abuja, crashed near the airport, damaging buildings and setting off an inferno in the poor and densely populated neighbourhood located in the city’s northern outskirts.
Chaos broke out after the crash, with rescue workers facing large crowds and aggressive soldiers while trying to access smoldering wreckage in the hunt for survivors.
While tear gas was fired at one point on Monday morning, the scene was generally much more calm, with a heavy security deployment in place.
Nigeria has a spotty aviation record, although Dana had been considered to be a relatively safe and reasonably efficient domestic airline since it began operating in 2008.
A spokesman for Nigeria’s Accident Investigations Bureau said all 153 people on board the plane were considered dead. The number of those killed on the ground was unclear.
A spokesman for the airline said the plane was carrying 147 passengers and six crew. China said six of its nationals were on the plane.
In the aftermath of the crash, thick smoke rose from the area and flames could be seen shooting from a two-storey building.Thousands of onlookers had partially blocked access to the crash site on Sunday, prompting soldiers to try to clear out the area, using rubber whips and their fists. One even threw a wooden plank at those crowded around.
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.
Some residents said it appeared that the plane had nosedived 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.”
An official with the National Emergency Management Agency said the plane had crashed into 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 bodies pulled out of the wreckage.
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,” it added.
Lagos, the largest city in Africa’s most populous nation, is home to an estimated 15 million people.
The accident followed another plane crash Saturday in the capital of nearby Ghana, when a cargo plane overshot 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.