The day hell fell on LagosBy EMMANUEL MAYAH in Lagos | Tuesday, June 5 2012 at 18:09
Disaster in Lagos is something people sort of expect but none of the eyewitnesses of Sunday’s air crash was prepared for the horror of watching a helpless mother throw down her two-year old baby from a burning three-storey building.
About fifty metres away, nurses and patients at Longe Private Hospital were heard screaming “Jesus! Jesus!” as a smoking aircraft zoomed down at the hospital building. The aircraft which was struggling to maintain altitude almost crashed into the hospital but suddenly regained some thrust, only to end up crashing into several buildings three streets away.
One of the eyewitnesses, a Mr Ajadi, who was watching a soccer match on TV between Nigeria and Namibia when the troubled aircraft hit his neighbourhood, recalled that most residents were at home the Sunday afternoon because of the football match.
Mr Ajadi said the baby thrown down from the burning building died a few minutes after she hit the ground. Her mother, identified as Fausat, badly broke her legs after she escaped the fire by jumping. Another woman, whose name was not ascertained, was grabbed by security personnel as she rushed towards her burning home. She was said to have left her new born baby with her parents while she visited her hairdresser when the crash occurred. Neither her parents nor her baby have been located.
About 3.36 pm Sunday afternoon, a 22-year-old McDonnell Douglas (MD-83) aircraft operated by Dana airline crashed into a two-storey building in Lagos killing all the 153 passengers on board. The flight, 9J-996, originating from Abuja, was about four minutes to emergency landing at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport (MMIA) in Lagos when it crashed into three residential buildings in the Iju area of Lagos.
Among the victims of the crash were Dr Levi Ajuonuma, Group General Manager, Public Affairs Division of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation; Ehime Aikhomu, son of the late former military Vice-President Augustus Aikhomu; three military officers comprising a General, a Lieutenant-Colonel and a Major. One of the female crew members, who died in the crash, identified as Vivian, was said to be preparing for her wedding this June with her UK-based fiancé.
Minutes after the crash, thousands of spectators thronged the crash scene but no one seemed to have a clue about rescue operations. Charred human bodies, scattered metal pieces and burnt personal items and documents littered the scene.
Eyewitnesses said the aircraft exploded as soon as it hit one of the buildings. Some spectators said they could hear some of the trapped passengers crying for help.
Mr Ajadi confirmed this saying: “They were crying ‘Help! Help’! But we could not come any closer because of the choking smoke and huge fire. We all rushed to the scene after the plane crashed but we did not know what to do as the smoke and fire were too severe for anyone to brave. We could see somebody attempting to crawl out of the burning aircraft. I cannot say whether he was a passenger or the pilot. He did not make it”.
The ill-fated aircraft, with parts scattered all over the place, lay on the mutilated bodies of dead passengers, several of them burnt beyond recognition.
The sector commander of the Federal Road Safety Corps in Ogun State, Mr Ayobami Omiyale, said, “The nose of the plane crashed into a two-storey building while the middle and tail entered the warehouse of a publishing company. All the bodies were found in the two-story building. We are yet to get any corpse from the publishing house which has the larger part of the plane in it. None of the corpses was touched by the fire.”
He added: “However, the bodies were a mix of both residents and the aircraft passengers. We couldn’t ascertain all their identities immediately and there are more bodies to be recovered but the plane is still on fire.”
Rescue operations were seriously hampered because crowd control was a major challenge to security personnel. Thousands of spectators had blocked the roads leading to the crash site, making it difficult for rescue equipment and officials to reach the scene. The crowd jostled for vantage positions to take photos of the burning aircraft with their cell phones which they immediately sent to different social media.
Pickpockets had a field day just as the infamous Lagos street urchins called “Area Boys” later braved the smoke and fire to scramble for valuables from the aircraft and from the affected residential homes. One man was beaten to a pulp by angry soldiers deployed to the scene after he was caught with a wallet containing 200 dollars and 8,000 naira.
A member of the search and rescue team gave vent to his frustration saying the operations were impeded because they lacked the necessary equipment to move the fuselage of the plane. He had a tough time telling spectators that the fumes oozing out of the crashed plane posed danger to residents and onlookers. “We ought to have completely secured the crash scene but we can’t even do it, the residents have taken over,” he lamented.
Another member of the rescue team admitted that the fire trucks, facilities and the personnel deployed to the scene were grossly inadequate for the task. He added that no meaningful search and rescue operation could be undertaken until the aircraft, whose nose was buried in the ground, was pulled out.
At one point during the operation, the crowd began to boo when a fire truck ran out of water. Unsure of what to do, policemen fired canisters of tear gas at them. Three Navy helicopters hovered above the scene to drop rescue materials but there was little else they could do because the neighbourhood was overcrowded and poorly planned.
While most of the bodies retrieved before sunset were burnt beyond recognition, none of the 24 corpses found later in the night was burnt as such. They were believed to be those of unlucky residents of the buildings damaged by the crash.
So far the figure of casualties on the ground has not been fully ascertained but rescue workers put non-passenger deaths at nothing less than 32. The body of a seven-year-old girl and that of a woman identified by residents as Mama Joel were among the bodies recovered.
One of the lucky survivors was a lady called Adenike. She said she was drying her laundry on a cloth line when she suddenly saw an aircraft coming in her direction. She said the aircraft took down a mango tree, killing instantly a cow tethered to it. The cow was to be used for a marriage ceremony.
Another survivor was Mr Patrick Akingbe, pastor of Mispem Bible Church located on Popoola Street. He recalled: “I just returned home from the church. I suddenly heard something pull the roof away. I raced out and couldn’t believe what I saw; children were screaming and running in different directions. Then I heard a loud explosion and there was huge smoke. Then there was another explosion; I heard about five explosions.”
When night fell on the crash scene, anxious relatives wept along the way to the conference room of the Murtala Muhammed Airport to hear the names of their loved ones as they were read out from the manifest. It took the intervention of the armed security personnel to restrain the relatives from attacking officials of Dana Airline.
Their fury knew no bound when reports filtered in that engineers had not certify the aircraft fit for the flight but were overruled by the Indian owners of the airline.
Refusing to be restrained were friends and relatives of the Anyene family who lost five family members to the crash. They included the father, mother, two infant children and a baby. Nine other families lost at least two members each to the crash.
It was later gathered that the ill-fated aircraft was a disaster waiting to happen.
On May 3, 2012, an unnamed Lagos station manager of Dana Airline was reported to have drawn the attention of management that the aircraft in question needed to be grounded for general check-up. The alarm was ignored. On May 11, the same aircraft was to fly from Lagos to Abuja with more than half capacity passengers but had to make an emergency landing at the Murtala Muhammed airport.
Reports said passengers on board scampered out of the aircraft and sought alternative means to their destination. Another lucky escape was recorded on May 25, 2012 when the same plane was to fly from Lagos to Calabar. It again had to return to Lagos when the crew reported an engine fault. The Abuja – Lagos flight on Sunday turned out to be the final straw.
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