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Relatives try to identify Nigerian plane victims

Anxious families and diplomats crowded into a hospital in Lagos on Tuesday and tried to identify corpses from a plane crash that killed the 153 people aboard the airliner and an unknown number of others on the ground.

The stench of the dead carried outside the air-conditioned morgue. 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 neighbourhood 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. He 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 with police dogs recovered 150 bodies, including those of a mother cradling an infant, 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.”

The MD-83 plane went down in Lagos’ Iju-Ishaga neighbourhood, about nine kilometres (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.”

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