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Cranes lift debris, dogs sniff for dead in search for over 150 killed in Nigeria plane crash
LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) ' Police dogs sniffed for dead bodies Monday in the rubble of buildings destroyed when an airliner crashed into them, killing all 153 aboard, as cranes lifted away heavy pieces of debris in the grisly aftermath of Nigeria's worst air disaster in nearly two decades.
Rescue officials said they fear many more people may have perished on the ground. The airline involved said an investigation had begun into the cause of Sunday's crash.
A Nigeria Red Cross report said 110 bodies had been recovered, with more being dug out from the rubble. A U.S. official said American citizens had been aboard the flight.
The pilots reported engine trouble before the plane fell out of the sky on a clear afternoon, smashing into businesses and crowded apartment buildings near Lagos' Murtala Muhammed International Airport. The flight was bound for Lagos, Nigeria's commercial center, from Abuja, the capital. Two years ago, the same MD-83 lost engine power due to a bird strike, according to an aviation database.
"The fear is that since it happened in a residential area, there may have been many people killed," said Yushau Shuaib, a spokesman for Nigeria's National Emergency Management Agency.
Overnight, officials brought in a large crane from a local construction company to lift the tail of the aircraft and other debris, and brought blow torches to cut through the aircraft wreckage. The debris still smoldered Monday morning. Some emergency workers wore masks to try and protect themselves from the stench of the dead.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan spent about 20 minutes looking at the wreckage with federal lawmakers and said the crash was a setback to Nigeria's growing aviation industry.
"We will make sure this will not repeat itself in this country," he said, a pledge that will be hard to keep in a nation with a history of major passenger plane crashes in the last 20 years.
The cause of the crash remained unclear Monday. The pilots radioed to the Lagos control tower just before the crash, reporting engine trouble, a military official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to journalists. The plane crashed along the typical approach path taken by aircraft heading into Lagos' airport.
The plane was built by McDonnell Douglas, which Boeing bought in 1997. It was a long-range variant in McDonnell's Douglas' popular MD-80 series, one of the most widely used plane types in the 1980s and 90s. Boeing stopped making them in 1999.
Boeing said in a statement on its website that the company is ready to provide technical assistance to the Civil Aviation Authority on Nigeria through the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board.
Dana Air said an investigation into the cause of the crash was already underway with U.S. officials assisting the Nigerian government. The company said the plane crashed with 146 passengers onboard, along with a flight engineer, two pilots and four cabin crew members.
"We extend our deepest sympathies to the families and friends of the deceased, and we are doing everything we can to assist them in this extremely difficult time," a statement signed by Dana Air CEO Jacky Hathiramani read.
In Washington, a State Department official confirmed that there were "a number" of American citizens on board, most, if not all, of whom were dual U.S.-Nigerian nationals. The official said consular officials in Lagos, Abuja and Washington were still reviewing the flight manifest to determine exactly how many Americans were on the plane. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
The dead also included at least four Chinese citizens, the official Chinese news agency Xinhua reported late Sunday, citing Chinese diplomats in Nigeria. Officials at the Chinese embassy in Nigeria could not be reached for comment by the AP. Two of the crash victims were Lebanese, according to state-run Lebanon's National News Agency. Two of the crash victims were Lebanese, according to the Lebanese Foreign Ministry. The ministry identified them as Nadine Chidiac and Roger Awad.
The aircraft's black box recorders where flight data is stored had still not been found by Monday, said Harold Demuren, the director-general of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority.
Demuren said the Nigerian registration number of the plane was 5NRAM. Aviation databases show the plane was exported to Nigeria in early 2009. It was first delivered in 1990 with the U.S. registration number N944AS to Alaska Airlines and it suffered two minor incidents while in the Seattle-based airline's service, according to databases of the Federal Aviation Administration and the Aviation Safety Network. On Nov. 2, 2002, the plane made an emergency diversion due to smoke and electrical smell in the cabin, and on Aug. 20, 2006, the plane was evacuated after landing at Long Beach, California because of smoke in the passenger cabin.
Bobbie Egan, spokeswoman for Alaska Airlines, said she had no information on the aircraft that may have been used several years ago by the airline and referred calls to Alaska's corporate communications office.
On April 19, 2010, the plane made an emergency landing in Lagos due to loss of engine power after a bird strike following takeoff, according to the Aviation Safety Network.
Nigeria, home to more than 160 million people, has a history of major aviation disasters, though in recent years there hasn't been a crash. On Saturday night, a Nigerian Boeing 727 cargo airliner crashed in Accra, the capital of Ghana, slamming into a bus and killing 10 people. The plane belonged to Lagos-based Allied Air Cargo.
Lagos-based Dana Air has five aircraft in its fleet and runs both regional and domestic flights. It has announced on its website that all Monday flights have been canceled. Local media reported a similar Dana flight in May made an emergency landing at the Lagos airport after having a hydraulic problem.
Sunday's crash appeared to be the worst since September 1992, when a military transport plane crashed into a swamp shortly after takeoff from Lagos. All 163 army soldiers, relatives and crew members on board were killed.
Associated Press writers Slobodan Lekic in Brussels; Matthew Lee in Washington; Josh Freed in Minneapolis; Robert Seavey in Phoenix and Zeina Karam from Beirut contributed to this report.
Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellap.