Chaos broke out in the densely-populated Lagos neighbourhood where a passenger jet crashed Sunday, as rescue workers faced heavy crowds and aggressive soldiers while trying to access smoldering wreckage.
All 153 people on board the Dana Air flight were presumed dead and more were believed to have been killed on the ground after the plane plowed into the impoverished neighbourhood near the airport in the city of some 15 million.
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 wood 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.
Some reacted by throwing stones at the troops, creating a crossfire of hailing rocks over the narrow street adjacent to the site.
The area also 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.
People in the neighbourhood near the airport are used to seeing planes flying low overhead, but they said it was immediately clear that the Dana Air Boeing MD83 flight was imperiled.
“The pilot was struggling to control it,” said Yusuf Babatunde, 26, who mimicked wings recklessly swaying from side to side when asked to describe what the plane looked like as it went down.
The impact caused an immediate fire and sent people running, but they quickly returned, and within hours of the crash the roofs and balconies of the surrounding ramshackle buildings were flooded with those surveying the damage.
Some, according to one 50-year-old resident, sought to gain financially from the disaster.
“The looting started right away,” said Tunji Malomo, who told AFP he locked up his nearby bar as soon as he heard news of the crash.
“This is busy, busy area,” said Martin Ajebayo, 38, a local who said he witnessed the plane go down.
“People are living there,” he added, while gesturing to the area where the plane crashed, which locals said included a printing business, a church and a two or three story residential building.
Rescue workers said several people had been pulled out alive, but few believed there would be many survivors following a high impact crash in a contained, urban area.
A white, noxious cloud rose from the crash site that burned onlookers’ eyes, as pieces of the plane lay scattered around the muddy ground.
While local residents helped carry fire hoses to the crash site, the major challenges of life in oil-rich Nigeria quickly became apparent as there wasn’t any water to put out the flames more than three hours later. Some young men carried plastic buckets of water to the fire, trying to douse small portions. Fire trucks, from the very few that are stationed in Lagos state, couldn’t carry enough water. Officials commandeered water trucks from nearby construction sites, but they became stuck on the narrow, crowded roads, unable to reach the crash site.
Nigeria, home to more than 160 million people, suffers from endemic government corruption and mismanagement. The nation also has a history of major aviation disasters, though in recent years there hasn’t been a crash.
But many travellers remain leery of some airlines. 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. Officials with Lagos-based Dana Air did not respond to calls for comment Sunday night. The airline has five aircraft in its fleet and runs both regional and domestic flights. 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.
Hundreds of wailing relations of passengers on the crashed Dana Air plane, besieged the local wing of the Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA) in Ikeja on Sunday, seeking information on the flight.
The anxious relations include the elderly and children.
Mr Tony Usidamen, spokesman of Dana Air, who addressed the relations of the passengers outside the Departure Hall, read out the names of 139 passengers who were on the ill-fated flight.
He confirmed that 147 persons, including two pilots, were on board the aircraft.
Usidamen told the relations of the passengers that he had no more details to give them, saying that rescue operations were still ongoing at the crash site in Iju, Agege, near Lagos.
The airline spokesman later confirmed to some aviation correspondents that there were no survivors in the crash.
Investigation into the DANA Air crash on the outskirts of Lagos on Sunday has begun, according to the Director General of the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), Dr Harold Demuren.
Demuren, who spoke with the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) on phone on Sunday, in Lagos, said that the flight originated from Abuja.
Asked if they were survivors among the passengers on board when the plane crashed, he said: “We don’t believe there are survivors.
“I am talking to you from the scene of the crash.”
He added: “Right now our thoughts and and prayers are with the families.”