COTONOU, Benin — Mourning relatives watched from a debris-littered shore Friday as divers retrieved bodies from a jet that crashed off the West African nation of Benin with 161 people on board.
More than 20 people, including the pilot, survived the Christmas Day crash. Dozens of others were still missing and feared dead, officials said.
“I can’t bear to think what has become of them,” said Karim Jumblat, a Lebanese man waiting for news of three brothers who were heading home to spend the holidays with their parents.
“If only they had waited a few days more,” Jumblat, who was to follow his brothers a few days later, said before turning to wipe away tears.
Another man fainted as authorities brought his wife’s body to shore Friday. A day earlier, they recovered his 3-year-old daughter. Like many other Lebanese who work in West Africa, they had been heading home to spend Christmas with relatives.
The Boeing 727, carrying mostly Lebanese, clipped a building at the end of the runway and plunged into the Atlantic Ocean, scattering bodies and debris along the beach and into the sea.
Lebanese Foreign Minister Jean Obeid, who flew to Cotonou on Friday, said 113 bodies had been recovered.
There were 22 survivors, he said, including the pilot. Some who initially survived the crash later succumbed to their wounds.
Obeid said 151 passengers and 10 crew members were aboard the Union des Transports Africains plane, which was owned by Lebanese businessmen and registered in Guinea.
The flight originated in the Guinean capital, Conakry, and stopped in Freetown, Sierra Leone, picking up Lebanese along the way. Thousands of Lebanese work in West Africa.
One survivor, Hamza Hamoud, said he was traveling home to Lebanon with nine friends.
“During takeoff we were laughing, playing around,” the 28-year-old businessman told The Associated Press, pacing a Cotonou hospital with bandaged arms. “I felt the plane hit something and suddenly we were in the water.”
Hamoud swam to safety, then helped fishermen save others.
“All my friends are dead. All nine of them,” he said.
The plane broke apart on impact, hurtling a severed cockpit onto the beach. The body of the destroyed aircraft lay partially submerged in the water; an engine lay in the surf.
Thousands of onlookers thronged the accident scene. A few looters rifled through debris, shredded clothes and ripped luggage, pocketing cell phones and cash. One man hauled away a small piece of the shattered plane, apparently as a souvenir.
It was not known what caused the crash.
Benin’s chief of army staff, Fernand Amoussou, said earlier Friday that one of the plane’s two black boxes had been found. But Benin Foreign Affairs Minister Rogatien Biaou later said that report was wrong.
The French Defense Ministry said in a statement from Paris it was dispatching navy divers to aid the recovery and investigation at the request of Benin’s government. France also agreed to send a military transport plane to Cotonou to help repatriate bodies.
Obeid brought with him 10 Lebanese army divers. A six-member Lebanese medical team went to Benin hospitals to help treat the wounded.
The retrieval of bodies was delayed because Benin lacked the equipment to lift the wreckage from the sea, Obeid said. Authorities tied steel cables and chains to parts of the plane, trying to clear away the debris with a tractor.
Biaou, Benin’s foreign minister, said a three-day national mourning period would begin Saturday.
Another survivor, Guinean flight attendant Aminata Bangoura, said there was a large explosion two minutes after takeoff, causing the plane to plunge at a high speed.
“People were screaming and shouting, but I didn’t even have time to shout as things happened very fast,” the 28-year-old told The Associated Press at a Cotonou hospital, where nurses tended to cuts on her face and bruises on her arms and legs.
Bangoura said she was briefly trapped when the plane struck the water. She struggled and freed herself, swimming until she saw two men in a boat who hauled her aboard.
“I still don’t know how I managed to survive. God just willed that I must survive. I thank God,” she said.
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