Nigeria plane crash hit all social classes

June 7, 2012 - 3:07 PM
APTOPIX Nigeria Plane crash

People gather at the site of a plane crash in Lagos, Nigeria, Sunday, June 3, 2012. A passenger plane carrying more than 150 people crashed in Nigeria's largest city on Sunday, government officials said. Firefighters pulled at least one body from a building that was damaged by the crash and searched for survivors as several charred corpses could be seen in the rubble.(AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — Engines out, the pilot of the doomed Nigerian commercial airliner looked for somewhere to put down the aircraft, desperate for open space but finding only a sea of tin roofs and narrow dirt roads. Down below, people quietly rejoiced in their homes that erratic state-run electrical service had returned to their crowded neighborhood on the edge of the megacity of Lagos on a hot Sunday afternoon.

The crash on Sunday of the Dana Air flight killed 153 people on board the MD-83 jetliner and an undetermined number of people on the ground. The tragedy struck all of Nigeria's economic classes, from the state-run oil company executive riding on the plane to the working poor on the ground in the country's largest city. As investigators continue to probe what caused the crash, many fear another could happen in a country with a long history of aviation disasters that remains completely unprepared for large-scale emergencies.

It's not just those aboard aircraft who face danger, noted Ezekiel Adekunle, the son of a landlord whose apartment building was damaged in the crash.

"What about those people at home who didn't board any plane, but the plane came and crashed on them," he said.

It was the worst air disaster in nearly two decades for Nigeria, a nation where carriers have longed used aging aircraft and often operate under little government scrutiny. Some passengers clutch Muslim prayer beads or Bibles, softly praying or loudly calling out "Blood of Jesus" as airplanes hit turbulence. Applause and more prayers punctuate landings.

But flying is the quickest and safest way to move around a nation about twice the size of California with a crumbling network of roads that drivers in rickety buses and trucks speed along and where robbers lay in wait in the night.

Among diplomats and expatriate workers in the oil-rich nation, air travel often becomes a macabre cocktail party discussion, as people swear by one airline or whisper about rumored pending bankruptcies of others. Some of the smaller carriers rely on just one or two aircraft while the largest, Arik Air Ltd., has more than 20 airplanes.

Dana Air, owned by a wealthy family whose conglomerate sells everything from fruit juice to cars, had a fair reputation for on-time departures and safety. Politicians and government workers shuttling between Nigeria's central capital of Abuja to its seaside commercial capital of Lagos in the southwest were frequent passengers. Dana's fleet of five planes, all of them U.S.-made MD-83s, stood out among other airlines that rely on Boeing 737s. Passengers got Dana-branded drinks and sausage rolls on each flight.

On Sunday, airlines ran the normally reduced number of routes between Abuja and Lagos. The Dana Air MD-83, crewed by a pilot, co-pilot, a flight engineer and four flight attendants, had flown from Lagos to Abuja earlier in the day and was scheduled to depart the capital for Lagos at 2:13 p.m. for the return flight.

Abuja's Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport is undergoing renovations, so passenger squeeze into one waiting hall where large standing air conditioners cannot cool the hot and humid air fast enough. Those wanting to travel on Sunday crowded against each other, trying to obtain seats on the limited number of flights available. Omonigho Akinsanya was trying to travel back home to Lagos with her 5-year-old son Moyo after visiting her sister. She got angry when a man jumped the line and got one of the last tickets available on the Dana flight. Her other sister, Eseoghene Okor, got a seat and boarded the flight. The man's rudeness saved the lives of Akinsanya and her little boy.

Inside the full flight, a cross-section of Nigeria's elite sat in business class and coach. The son of a former vice president during Nigeria's military era, Ehime Aikhomu, sat in first class. Levi Ajuonuma, an executive and spokesman for the state-run Nigerian National Petroleum Corp., was nearby. Members of the Nigeria's military were scattered throughout the plane, as were employees of the country's Central Bank. The Anyenes, a Nigerian-American family of six from West Hartford, Connecticut, sat in coach. There were a total of nine Americans on board as well as a Briton, an Indian, a French citizen, at least four Chinese citizens, two Lebanese and a Canadian.

The flight taxied and took off into the dusty air outside of Abuja at 2:54 p.m., about 40 minutes later than scheduled. The plane banked and began heading south toward Lagos.

It remains unclear exactly what went wrong, but at 3:42 p.m., pilot Peter Waxton, an American from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, radioed Lagos' control tower and declared an emergency, saying both of the Pratt & Whitney engines that hang just below the plane's tail had failed. The MD-83 lost altitude, still miles from the airfield and surrounded by the sprawl of Lagos, a state home to more than 17.5 million.

In the final moments, the aircraft neared a small open space in the crowded neighborhood of Iju-Ishaga, about nine kilometers (five miles) short of Lagos' Murtala Muhammed International Airport. The plane barely passed over an uncompleted building before sheering off the top of a mango tree. The belly of the airplane crashed into an empty house. Its nose smashed into a three-story apartment building.

On the ground, Abiodun Adeniyi had turned on a PlayStation, happy that electrical power had returned to his neighborhood just ahead of the Nigeria-Namibia FIFA qualifying soccer match at 4 p.m. Without noise or warning, the plane came down. Debris penetrated his roof and rained down. Some struck his cousin's baby, only bruising her face. One of the plane's wings destroyed the rooms of two men who had joined Adeniyi only minutes earlier.

As the plane burned, sending acrid white smoke that stung the eyes into the air, thousands gathered around the crash site, taking pictures with their mobile phones and rummaging through debris. It took emergency workers about 20 minutes to reach the site over the narrow, crooked dirt roads. Even then, there wasn't enough water to put out the flames. Residents tried to put out the fire by throwing water from small plastic buckets.

Night fell, and private water tankers from nearby construction sites rumbled toward the site, but couldn't get through because cars of onlookers and security officials blocked the road. Soldiers and police tore away pieces of scrap lumber to strike those who wouldn't step back from the shattered and smoldering plane.

As of Thursday, it remains unclear how many people in total died in the crash. Government officials have said they likely won't know until they complete forensic testing, which could take weeks. Meanwhile, bulldozers have leveled the remains of the buildings struck by the plane, turning it into an eerily empty lot of airplane parts where security officers were seen thumbing through the pages of a torn family photo album.

Adeniyi had immediately packed his belongings and those of his neighbors as the fire still raged from the airplane. Some people approached and began moving his possessions. He thought they were lending a hand. Instead they just walked away with them. Adeniyi doesn't care all that much.

"I just thank God that I did not die," he said. "I'm alive."

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Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellap .