LAGOS, Nigeria — Emergency workers in Nigeria used cadaver dogs and cranes to search for corpses Monday at the site, where an American-built airliner plunged to earth, killing all 153 aboard. Rescue officials said they fear many more people may have perished on the ground.
A Nigeria Red Cross report said that 48 bodies had been recovered, with more being dug out from the rubble.
The pilots reported engine trouble before the plane crashed on its way into Lagos. Two years ago, the same Boeing MD-83 lost engine power due to a bird strike, according to an aviation database.
Watch video of the crash here:
On a clear Sunday afternoon, the Dana Air jetliner smashed into businesses and crowded apartment buildings near Lagos’ Murtala Muhammed International Airport, the worst air disaster in Nigeria in nearly two decades.
“The fear is that since it happened in a residential area, there may have been many people killed,” said Yushau Shuaib, a spokesman for Nigeria’s National Emergency Management Agency.
At the crash site Monday, police with cadaver dogs searched for bodies inside the wreckage. Overnight officials brought in a large crane from a local construction company to lift pieces of debris away. They also brought blow torches to cut through what remains of the plane. The debris still smoldered Monday morning. Some wore masks to try and protect themselves from the stench of the dead.
Rescue workers used the crane from the construction site to lift the tail of the aircraft. The metal shrieked as it lifted skyward and was dropped down. Investigators then climbed ladders to begin to look at its tail.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan arrived Monday to the crash site and spent about 20 minutes looking at the wreckage with federal lawmakers. He said the crash was a setback to Nigeria’s Aviation Ministry.
“We will make sure this will not repeat itself in this country,” he said.
However, that is a difficult challenge in a nation with a history of major passenger plane crashes in the last 20 years.
The cause of the crash remained unclear. The pilots radioed to the Lagos control tower just before the crash, reporting engine trouble, a military official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to journalists.
In a statement on its website, Dana Air said an investigation into the cause of the crash was already underway with U.S. officials assisting the Nigerian government. The company said the plane crashed with 146 passengers onboard, along with a flight engineer, two pilots and four cabin crew members.
“We extend our deepest sympathies to the families and friends of the deceased, and we are doing everything we can to assist them in this extremely difficult time,” the statement signed by Dana Air CEO Jacky Hathiramani read,
Rescue workers are still searching for the aircraft’s black box recorders where flight data is stored, said Harold Demuren, the director-general of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority.
Demuren said the Nigerian registration number of the plane was 5NRAM. Aviation databases show the plane was exported to Nigeria in early 2009. It was first delivered in 1990 with the U.S. registration number N944AS to Alaska Airlines and it suffered two minor incidents while in the Seattle-based airline’s service, according to databases of the Federal Aviation Administration and the Aviation Safety Network. On Nov. 2, 2002, the plane made an emergency diversion due to smoke and electrical smell in the cabin, and on Aug. 20, 2006, the plane was evacuated after landing at Long Beach, California, because of smoke in the passenger cabin.
Boeing said in a statement on its website that the company is ready to provide technical assistance to the Civil Aviation Authority on Nigeria through the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board.
Bobbie Egan, spokeswoman for Alaska Airlines, said she had no information on the aircraft that may have been used several years ago by the airline and referred calls to Alaska’s corporate communications office, which was not yet open.
On April 19, 2010, the plane made an emergency landing in Lagos due to loss of engine power after a bird strike following takeoff, according to the Aviation Safety Network.
The aircraft appeared to have come down Sunday on its belly onto the dense neighborhood that sits along the typical approach path taken by aircraft heading into Lagos’ Murtala Muhammed International Airport. The plane tore through roofs, sheared a mango tree and rammed into a woodworking studio, a printing press and at least two apartment buildings before stopping. The plane was heading to Lagos from Abuja, the capital, when it went down.
The dead included at least four Chinese citizens, the official Chinese news agency Xinhua reported late Sunday, citing Chinese diplomats in Nigeria. Officials at the Chinese embassy in Nigeria could not be reached for comment by the AP. Two of the crash victims were Lebanese, according to state-run Lebanon’s National News Agency. Two of the crash victims were Lebanese, according to the Lebanese Foreign Ministry. The ministry identified them as Nadine Chidiac and Roger Awad.
Nigeria, home to more than 160 million people, has a history of major aviation disasters, though in recent years there hasn’t been a crash. On Saturday night, a Nigerian Boeing 727 cargo airliner crashed in Accra, the capital of Ghana, slamming into a bus and killing 10 people. The plane belonged to Lagos-based Allied Air Cargo.
Lagos-based Dana Air has five aircraft in its fleet and runs both regional and domestic flights. It has announced on its website that all Monday flights have been canceled. Local media reported a similar Dana flight in May made an emergency landing at the Lagos airport after having a hydraulic problem.
Sunday’s crash appeared to be the worst since September 1992, when a military transport plane crashed into a swamp shortly after takeoff from Lagos. All 163 army soldiers, relatives and crew members on board were killed.