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Nigeria morgue scene of sorrow after plane crash

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 4 2015 2:20 a.m. MDT

A rescue worker walks past the wreckage of a plane  in Lagos, Nigeria, Monday, June 4, 2012. The passenger plane carrying more than 150 people crashed in Nigeria's largest city on Sunday, government officials said. Firefighters pulled at least one body from a building that was damaged by the crash and searched for survivors as several charred corpses could be seen in the rubble.  (Sunday Alamba, Associated Press) A rescue worker walks past the wreckage of a plane in Lagos, Nigeria, Monday, June 4, 2012. The passenger plane carrying more than 150 people crashed in Nigeria's largest city on Sunday, government officials said. Firefighters pulled at least one body from a building that was damaged by the crash and searched for survivors as several charred corpses could be seen in the rubble. (Sunday Alamba, Associated Press)

LAGOS, Nigeria — Anxious families and diplomats crowded into a Nigerian hospital's mortuary on Tuesday, trying to identify corpses from a plane crash that killed the 153 people aboard the airliner and an unknown number of others on the ground.

Nigeria's government also announced Tuesday it has indefinitely suspended the license of Dana Air, the carrier that operated the MD-83 airplane that crashed Sunday in the country's largest city.

The stench of the dead carried outside the air-conditioned morgue at the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital. Guards parking cars outside wore surgical masks to block out the smell.

Professor David Oke, the chief medical director of the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital, told the dozens of families that the morgue had received about 40 bodies. He said among those already identified were the bodies of a Chinese citizen and a Canadian.

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. 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."

On Tuesday, he went to the hospital to see if his uncle's body was there. The uncle had worked for the aviation ministry and needed to take a last-minute trip to Lagos, Nwoka said. The flight had originated on Abuja, the capital. About 10 U.S. and Chinese diplomats also joined the families at the morgue.

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.

After the hospital's director spoke to families, Jennifer Enanana leaned against a car, quietly sobbing. She said her younger brother had been on board the flight. She said her other brother had died within the last year.

"We are without eyes," she said, her sobs growing louder. "We don't have anybody that will protect us that can stand like a man and defend us. Dana stole him."

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 MD83.

Dana Air said the plane that crashed had its last safety inspection on May 30.

The MD-83 plane went down in Lagos' Iju-Ishaga neighborhood, about nine kilometers (five miles) from Lagos' Murtala Muhammed International Airport. The crew radioed the tower that they had engine trouble shortly before the crash, but the exact cause remained unclear. The weather was clear at the time.

A torrential downpour and strong winds that flooded roads and downed power lines and trees prevented emergency crews from getting to the site early Tuesday morning, said Yushau Shuaib, a spokesman for Nigeria's National Emergency Management Agency. The rain had stopped by midday.

The scene is marked by charred metal from the plane, rubble from destroyed buildings, thick mud and standing water. A three-story apartment building at the site struck by the nose of the MD-83 aircraft began shaking Monday as rescuers dug through debris, and they are afraid it might collapse.

"It's going to be messy," Shuaib said.

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 is expected to join Nigerian authorities on Tuesday to help them determine a cause for the crash, Oketunbi said.

President Goodluck Jonathan wept as he visited the crash site Monday and pledged to make air travel safer, but the crash called into question the government's ability to protect its citizens and enforce regulations in a nation with a history of aviation disasters.

Some U.S. citizens were aboard the flight, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said, but he could not provide a firm number. A woman from West Hartford, Connecticut, her husband and four young children died on board the flight. The Tuesday edition of the Hartford Courant newspaper 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.

Family members said Americans Josephine Onita and Jennifer Onita of Missouri City, Texas were killed in the crash. The family said the sisters were in Lagos to attend a wedding.

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

Associated Press writers Bashir Adigun in Abuja, Nigeria and Mike Graczyk in Houston, Texas contributed to this report. Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellap.

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