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Mix-Ups Follow Air Crash In Nigeria

Posted by By Eli Saslow on 2005/10/23 | Views: 2239 |

Mix-Ups Follow Air Crash In Nigeria

A day after a passenger plane crashed, killing all 117 people aboard, Nigerians described two tragedies: the crash and the government's slow, chaotic response to it.

117 Aboard Perish; Chaotic Response Has Public Angry

LAGOS, Nigeria, Oct. 23 -- A day after a passenger plane crashed, killing all 117 people aboard, Nigerians described two tragedies: the crash and the government's slow, chaotic response to it.

The Boeing 737, operated by Bellview Airlines, left Lagos about 8:40 p.m. Saturday for Abuja, the capital, and three minutes later sent out a distress call, airline officials said. It took Nigerian officials 15 hours to confirm the location of the crash, about 20 miles north of Lagos. During that time, officials misidentified the crash site and mistakenly announced that half the passengers had survived.


A man reads a newspaper with headlines about Saturday evening's airplane crash, in Lagos, Nigeria. (Sunday Alamba - AP) 
In the midst of the confusion, Nigeria's first lady, Stella Obasanjo, died suddenly Sunday morning during surgery in Spain, completing what President Olusegun Obasanjo called "a black weekend for all of Nigeria."

The cause of the crash remained unknown Sunday night.

"Many citizens have called for our rescue measures to be looked into," Nigeria's minister of information, Frank Nweke, said on local television. "It's not an easy thing to do. It's a long process."

During a succession of interviews shown on local television, one Nigerian after another expressed dismay at the response time.

Nweke said the government activated search-and-rescue teams 90 minutes after the plane lost contact with the airport Saturday night. But the search that ensued over the next 15 hours proved futile.

Early Sunday, government officials announced that the plane had disappeared from radar over the Atlantic Ocean, 15 miles west of Lagos. An hour later, a police spokesman said the wreckage had been found in Kishi, a city 120 miles north of Lagos. An hour after that, Nigerian officials confirmed that the plane had crashed in the woods 20 miles north of Lagos in the neighboring state of Oyo.

Confusion persisted even after the crash site was located. A government spokesman in Oyo initially announced that as many as 70 passengers had survived the crash.

On Nigerian television, the chairman of Bellview Airlines, Tunde Yusuf, read a list of all 111 passengers and six crew members aboard. "We hope," Yusuf said, that "some of these people have survived."

Only after darkness cloaked Lagos on Sunday night did local television finally put all doubt to rest by showing images of human wreckage and interviewing Red Cross officials who said that no one had survived. The Oyo spokesman then confirmed that there were no survivors.

Most of the passengers were believed to be Nigerians. The State Department said one American was on the flight, but no further information was available.

Bellview Airlines is regarded as having one of the safest fleets in Nigeria, an exception in a country sometimes cited for poor air travel. The airline began operating in Nigeria 10 years ago, and none of its planes had crashed before Saturday. The Lagos-to-Abuja flight, which takes about 50 minutes, is its most popular route, with as many six planes making that journey during the typical day.

Nigeria's last plane crash was in May 2002, when a plane plunged into a residential neighborhood in Kano, killing more than 140 people on board and on the ground.

The Spanish Foreign Ministry said the president's wife died Sunday morning at a hospital in the southern resort city of Marbella, where she was on a private visit. It had no information on the cause of death and did not know whether she had undergone surgery, as asserted by Nigerian officials in Abuja, the Associated Press reported.

A one-sentence statement signed by a presidential spokeswoman described the first lady as Obasanjo's "beloved wife" but gave no further details as to what caused her death.


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