Families seek Nigeria crash bodies

  • Sunday, December 11, 2005 - Reuters
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PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria (Reuters) -- Relatives of some of the 103 people killed in a plane crash in Nigeria on Saturday have crowded hospital mortuaries seeking the bodies of their loved ones.

The Sosoliso Airlines flight on its way from the capital Abuja to the southern oil city of Port Harcourt crashed during a storm and burst into flames at the airport, killing all but seven of the people on board.

More than 50 of the people on board were schoolchildren from a Catholic college in Abuja on their way home for the Christmas break, according to the Abuja archbishop's secretary.

Also among the people who died in the crash were a Frenchman and an American woman working for the relief organization Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), the head of mission for MSF France in Nigeria said.

At the University of Port Harcourt Teaching Hospital on Sunday morning, about 20 badly burnt bodies were laid out on the dirt floor of the mortuary, a room with no refrigeration or air-conditioning.

Hospital staff sprinkled disinfectant on the bodies, most of whom were recognizable, and tagged them with numbers.

"I am angry. I have been here since 6 a.m. All I want is to take the body of my elder sister. Give her to me," cried one woman among hundreds who were pleading to take bodies away.

Many were clutching photographs of their dead relatives.

Hospital authorities said they could not release any bodies until full identification had been carried out, and five armed police were stationed at the door of the mortuary.

One of the survivors, a woman, was being treated in a ward in the same hospital. Most of her body was covered in bandages and her face looked badly burnt.

No word on cause

On Saturday, confusing reports emerged about what exactly happened to the DC9 aircraft as it was trying to land. Civil aviation officials said it missed the runway, but witnesses said they saw it land on the tarmac and break into pieces.

There was no official word on the cause of the crash.

Seven weeks ago a plane operated by Bellview, another Nigerian airline, crashed near the commercial capital Lagos killing all 117 people on board. The cause of that crash has not been established.

Information Minister Frank Nweke said on Saturday that Sosoliso was generally viewed as safe and, as far as he knew, had an accident-free record.

President Olusegun Obasanjo said just after the Bellview crash in October that Nigeria would "plug loopholes" in its aviation sector and strengthen compliance with maintenance standards.

Investigators from the aviation ministry were on their way to the Port Harcourt crash site on Saturday evening, officials said, adding the airport was closed to all flights.

Sosoliso flies many domestic routes and is one of only two Nigerian airlines that operate on the busy Abuja-Port Harcourt route.

The aviation industry of Africa's most populous country has grown dramatically in the past decade, but has been struck by a series of fatal air crashes.

An inquiry is under way into the Bellview crash but there is no word yet on the cause and investigators have not found the voice or flight data recorders.

Experts say most of the country's commercial fleet is over 20 years old and second hand, while runways are often closed because of poor maintenance. It is not uncommon for planes to take off and land in torrential rain.

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