Nigerian jet crashes, 103 dead

Dozens of children killed in second major air accident in Nigeria in 7 weeks.

A Nigerian jetliner carrying 110 people - including dozens of school children - crashed in stormy weather as it approached this southern city, killing at least 103 who were on board. It was Nigeria's second major airplane accident in seven weeks, raising questions about air safety in Africa's most populous nation. Charred bodies and pieces of the wrecked plane were strewn around the disaster site, where rescue workers found only seven survivors who were rushed to an area hospital, Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority spokesman Sam Adurogboye said. "They were breathing and were taken to the hospital. They are responding to treatment," he said, but did not say if the survivors were passengers or crew members. The Sosoliso Airlines' McDonnell Douglas DC-9 crashed around midday Saturday as it approached the oil center of Port Harcourt, on arrival from the Nigerian capital Abuja. The cause of the accident was unknown. An airport worker said burned bodies lay across the landing area after the plane broke into pieces upon impact. "The place where I'm standing now is scattered with corpses." The dead - "many of them burned beyond recognition" - were being taken to mortuaries, he said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with reporters. Frantic family members at the airport said the plane had been carrying 75 school children home for Christmas holidays, all of them aged between 12 and 16. They were pupils at the Loyola Jesuit school in Abuja. Adurogboye said there had been stormy weather around the airport at the time of the crash, and witnesses said they saw lightning flashes as the plane approached the runway. There had been seven crew members on board, Adurogboye said. "It is a national tragedy for us," said Femi Fani-Kayode, a spokesman for Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo. "We need to take all the necessary measures to make sure this sort of thing stops happening." Asked whether this raised questions about air safety in Nigeria, he said: "of course, people would be concerned, in view of the circumstances." Information Minister Frank Nweke said Sosoliso Airlines had a reputation for being efficient and reliable. Established in 1994, Nigerian-owned Sosoliso began scheduled flights as a domestic airline in July 2000 and now flies to six Nigerian cities, according to its Web site. "To my knowledge they haven't had any incidents since they started their operation," Nweke said. "So this has come as a surprise, a very big surprise." Sosoliso spokesman Simbo Olorufemi in Lagos would not comment on details of the crash beyond confirming it had occurred, and saying "most of the passengers might have lost their lives." Nigerian airports also have come under criticism in recent months, following a string of near-misses and an incident in which an Air France passenger jet crashed into a herd of cows on the runway at Port Harcourt. International airlines briefly suspended flights at Lagos' international airport because of holes in the runway. On Oct. 22, an Abuja-bound Boeing 737-200 crashed after taking off from Lagos, Nigeria's biggest city, killing 117 people on board the Bellview Airlines flight. The cause remains unclear, but U.S. investigators helping with the investigation ruled out terrorism, an Aviation Ministry official said last month. After the October crash, President Olusegun Obasanjo ordered stricter safety and maintenance procedures for all Nigerian aircraft, directing the Aviation Ministry to "plug loopholes" to ensure passenger safety. In May 2002, an EAS Airlines jet - another domestic carrier - plowed into a heavily populated neighborhood after takeoff from the airport outside the northern city of Kano, killing 154 people in the plane and on the ground.