Plane Crash in Nigeria’s Commercial Capital Kills 163

Plane Crash in Nigeria Kills More Than 150 People
A helicopter hovers over the scene of Dana Airlines Ltd. passenger plane crash in Lagos today. Photographer: Emmanuel Arewa/AFP/Getty Images

The world’s deadliest air disaster this year killed at least 163 people in Nigeria when a Dana Airlines Ltd. passenger plane slammed into a heavily populated suburb in Nigeria’s biggest city, Lagos.

The plane, a Boeing Co. MD-83 with 146 passengers and seven crew members, crashed into the Agege suburb yesterday as it was approaching Murtala Muhammed Airport on a flight from Abuja, the capital. A least 10 people on the ground were killed, Hakeem Bello, a spokesman for Lagos state governor Babatunde Fashola, said in an e-mailed statement. The pilot was a U.S. citizen and the co-pilot was an Indian, the airline said.

“No survivors were found,” Tony Usidamen, a spokesman for Dana Group, which owns the Lagos-based airline, said today in a phone interview. “As we speak 94 bodies have been recovered.”

The crash was the worst civilian air disaster in Africa’s top oil producer since Jan. 22, 1973, when a plane carrying 176 passengers and crew went down in the northern city of Kano, killing all on board. It was the fourth accident in the country in 10 years that claimed the lives of more than 100 people. A military transport plane crashed in September 1992 shortly after takeoff from Lagos, killing 163 soldiers and crew aboard.

Smoldering Wreckage

Emergency workers continued work at the crash scene for the second day, pulling out bodies from the still smoldering wreckage.

“We can still see bodies in the buildings, so we can’t give final figures until we complete the recovery exercise,” said Tunji Oketunbi, a spokesman for the Aviation Ministry’s Accident Investigation Bureau.

Thousands of people thronged to the site at Popoola Street, where the plane clipped the roofs of buildings before plowing into three, its nose breaking into a fourth, an apartment complex.

“I hardly can find words to express it all; ordinary people trying to earn a living and ending up so tragically and untimely,” Governor Fashola told reporters at the crash site, according to a statement from his office. “It’s all so horrific, the pilot, the crew, young Nigerians whose lives have been so drastically and suddenly cut short.”

Mayday Call

Aviation Minister Stella Oduah said on state-owned NTA television that the pilots issued a Mayday call to the Lagos control tower at 3:43 p.m. from about 11 nautical miles from the airport. “A minute later the aircraft disappeared from the air traffic control radar,” she said.

The pilot told the control tower that the plane was having engine trouble, Harold Demuren, director general of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, said in a phone interview.

“The captain said they were having problems in this area,” Demuren said. The investigators need to check the plane’s black box to confirm if this had been the reason for the crash, he said.

The black box was recovered at 4 p.m. and will be sent to the U.K. or the U.S. for analysis, Oketunbi said.

The plane, built in 1990, was delivered to Dana in February 2009, according to the Aviation Safety Network database. It was previously operated by Alaska Airlines.

National Mourning

“We will make sure this doesn’t repeat itself in this country,” President Goodluck Jonathan told reporters at the scene of the crash. Yesterday he declared three days of national mourning and ordered a full investigation.

U.S. National Transportation Safety Board investigators are helping the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority to probe the cause of the crash, Dana said today in a statement on its website.

“We don’t know what went wrong,” Usidamen said. “The NCAA, the body charged with responsibility with investigating such incidents, has been to the crash site. They have met with officials of the airline to get facts about the flight and investigations are ongoing.”

Today’s jet engines have become so reliable that it is extremely improbable that two could fail at the same time, John Cox, a safety consultant at Washington, D.C.-based Safety Operating Systems and a former airline pilot, said in an interview.

Fuel Check

The first place investigators will check would be whether fuel was reaching the engines, Cox said. An issue with the fuel could explain why both engines stopped at or near the same time, he said.

Nigeria’s aviation industry, which had one of the world’s worst safety records before 2006, worked to improve it after an ADC Airlines plane crashed that year near Abuja, killing 97 people, Harro Ranter, president of the Flight Safety Foundation’s Aviation Safety Network, said in a telephone interview from Roosendaal, Netherlands.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration gave Nigeria a Category 1 rating in August 2010, allowing domestic carriers to fly to the U.S.

The aircraft that crashed was forced to carry out an emergency landing in Lagos on April 20, 2010, after it hit a bird on takeoff, according to the Aviation Safety Network database. It also experienced emergencies, including electrical smoke in the cabin, in 2002 and 2006.

Emergency Landing

A Dana aircraft had to make an emergency landing in Lagos on May 11 after developing hydraulic problems. It wasn’t the same plane that crashed yesterday, Usidamen said.

Dana Airlines canceled its flights today, according to a statement on its website.

The airline has been operating since November 2008 in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation. The carrier runs 27 flights a day, according to a company press statement in December.

Boeing released a statement extending “profound condolences to the family and friends of those lost in the Dana Airlines crash” and said the Chicago-based company “stands ready to provide technical assistance” in the investigation.

Levi Ajuonuma, a spokesman for the state-owned oil company Nigerian National Petroleum Corp., was on the flight.

Africa had the highest airline accident rate in the world in 2010, accounting for 17 percent of cases, even though it has the world’s lowest traffic rate, with only 3 percent of the population traveling by plane, according to the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization.

In Nigeria, 12.5 million passengers flew on domestic and international carriers in 2009, according to the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria.

The Nigerian Stock Exchange All-Share Index fell for a fifth day, retreating 0.8 percent to 21,785.37 in Lagos, according to an e-mailed statement from the bourse. The naira fell 0.4 percent against the dollar, reaching a four-month low on a closing basis at 161.245 per dollar.

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