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After Nigeria plane crash, families mourn; government suspends airline

Family members who lost relatives in a plane crash wait to identified their bodies at the Lagos state university teaching hospital in Lagos, Nigeria.
Family members who lost relatives in a plane crash wait to identified their bodies at the Lagos state university teaching hospital in Lagos, Nigeria.Sunday Alamba / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Mourners silently walked between rows of the dead from a plane crash in Nigeria that killed the 153 people aboard the airliner and others on the ground, peering into burned faces in hopes of claiming the remains of their loved ones on Tuesday.

Those in grief passed by more than a dozen bodies able to be recognized by sight alone in a Lagos hospital parking lot. Onlookers wore surgical masks to block out the smell. As family members softly wept and held each other, Nigeria's government announced Tuesday it has indefinitely suspended Dana Air's license, grounding the carrier that operated the MD-83 airplane that crashed in the country's largest city and now faces widespread public anger.

"We are without eyes," said Jennifer Enanana, as she sobbed in the parking lot over the death of her younger brother in the crash. She had lost another brother within the year. "We don't have anybody that will protect us that can stand like a man and defend us. Dana stole him."

The MD-83 went down in Lagos' Iju-Ishaga neighborhood, about nine kilometers (five miles) from Lagos' Murtala Muhammed International Airport. The area has grown dramatically over the decades since British colonialists first established an airstrip there, as Lagos surges toward becoming the largest city in Africa.

This photo taken on June 5, 2012, shows members of a rescue team carrying the body of a victim of a Dana Air plane crash which occurred on June 4th, at the site of the crash in the densely populated Toyin Area of Iju Ishaga in Lagos. Nigerian aviation authorities have suspended Dana Air's licence after a flight operated by the commercial passenger carrier crashed in Lagos, killing at least 159 people, a spokesman said on June 5. AFP PHOTO / EMMANUEL AREWAEMMANUEL AREWA/AFP/GettyImagesEmmanuel Arewa / AFP

That population pressure has seen homes, business and industrial sites shoot up along the approach route used by aircraft landing at the airport, changing what used to be forests and wetlands into a sprawling megacity. The development has put the population there at risk with many aviation disasters in Nigeria over the last two decades. Emergency workers fear a number of on-the-ground deaths from Sunday's crash that saw the aircraft slam into two apartment buildings, a printing press and a woodworking shop.

By midday Tuesday, searchers had recovered 150 bodies, according to Nigeria's National Emergency Management Agency. It's not yet known how many people died on the ground. Emergency workers were still looking through the debris for bodies, and one damaged building seemed on the verge of collapse.

Fearful family members who once crowded the neighborhood arrived Tuesday to the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital, where authorities had placed the 43 identifiable bodies so far collected from the crash.

Professor David Oke, the chief medical director of the hospital, told the dozens of relatives and diplomats gathered there that at least 29 had already been identified, including the corpses of a Chinese citizen and a Canadian.

Federal and state authorities have discussed using DNA testing to identify other bodies, though that likely would require massive assistance from laboratories outside of the country.

"We are aware there are more coming in and there are some bodies in our other hospital ... that are really burnt beyond recognition and may eventually need more forensic assessment," Oke said.

Outside the hospital, Ugonna Nwoka said his uncle had been aboard the Dana Air flight that went down in a congested neighborhood on Sunday, turning much of it to rubble. The uncle, who worked for the country's aviation ministry, suddenly needed to travel to Lagos and picked the Dana flight, Nwoka said.

Nwoka said he tried to go to the crash site on Monday but was pushed away by security forces.

"We stayed for hours trying to plead to see what happened," Nwoka said. Asked why he needed to see the crash site, Nwoka said if he didn't it would be "all like a dream, like a drama, like it's not real."

Popular anger has risen in the country against the airline since the crash. On Tuesday, the Nigerian government indefinitely suspended Dana Air's license to fly in Africa's most population nation, said Joe Obi, a spokesman for the country's aviation ministry. Obi said officials took the action as a safety precaution.

Officials with Dana Air could not be immediately reached for comment. A statement posted to the company's website described the airline as "professionally managed," saying the flight's captain had logged 18,500 flight hours, with 7,100 hours on an MD-83.

Dana Air said the plane that crashed had its last safety inspection on May 30 and was certified to fly by Nigerian regulators. However, oversight remains lax in oil-rich Nigeria, whose government remains hobbled by mismanagement and corruption.

The cause of the crash on a sunny, clear Sunday afternoon remains unclear. The crew radioed the tower that they had engine trouble shortly before the plane went down.

Late Monday, emergency workers recovered both the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder, said Tunji Oketunbi, a spokesman for the Accident Investigation Bureau, which probes airplane crashes in Nigeria.

"We will take them abroad for decoding and that will help our analysis," Oketunbi said Tuesday. "We will know what happened to the aircraft shortly before it crashed."

An investigator from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board also was expected to join Nigerian authorities on Tuesday to help them determine a cause for the crash, Oketunbi said.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said that seven American citizens were killed in the crash. Some, he said, were dual U.S.-Nigerian citizens, but he could not provide more details. He said the notification of next of kin is ongoing.

A woman from West Hartford, Conn., her husband and four young children died on board the flight. Neighbors identified the family as Maimuna Anyene, her Nigerian husband Onyeke, and their children, a 5 month old, 1-year-old twins and a 3 year old.

Americans Josephine Onita and Jennifer Onita of Missouri City, Texas also were killed in the crash, their sister said. She said her sisters were heading to Lagos to attend a wedding.

Others killed in the crash included at least four Chinese citizens, two Lebanese nationals and one French citizen, officials have said.