Plane Crashes in Benin, Killing at Least 82
By VIRGILE AHISSOU, AP
COTONOU, Benin (Dec. 25) - A jetliner clipped a building during takeoff and crashed into the sea off the West African nation of Benin on Thursday, killing at least 82 people - mostly Lebanese on their way home for the holidays, the transport minister said.
At least 24 people survived the crash, Transport Minister Ahmed Akobi said.
There were fears the death toll would rise as rescue workers searched the cold waters just offshore into the night, with spotlights set up along the beach to help them search for survivors and recover more bodies. Just after midnight, at least 15 bodies and the plane's smashed cockpit lay on the beach.
Most of the passengers on the flight were Lebanese workers on their way home for the holidays, a transport official says.
Divers and fishermen swam through scattered pieces of luggage, clothes and gift-wrapped presents, while tractors tied chains to the engine and other debris from the plane, in an effort to clear away the wreckage.
About 50 Lebanese gathered along the shore, crowding around each body as it was pulled from the water to identify friends or family members.
''This is all too much for me to handle,'' said one of the Lebanese, Akim Toufik.
It was unclear how many people were on the chartered Boeing 727 plane. Akobi said there were 156 passengers and an unknown number of crew, while an official in Cotonou with the charter company, UTA, said 253 people were on board.
The flight originated in the Guinean capital, Conakry, and stopped in Freetown, Sierra Leone, picking up Lebanese along the way, and was bound for Beirut, Lebanese Transportation Minister Najib Mikati said.
There was no word on what caused the aircraft to strike the building. Authorities shut down Cotonou airport until Friday as a precaution, Akobi said.
In Beirut, Lebanese Foreign Minister Jean Obeid said it appeared that the crash had damaged part of the Cotonou airport's guidance system. The airport shutdown forced Obeid to delay his departure for Benin on a special flight of Middle East Airlines, Lebanon's national carrier, with a medical team to bring the injured home.
The Boeing 727 lifted off on a sunny Thursday at 2:55 p.m. from the airport in Cotonou, Benin's commercial capital, and disaster immediately followed, said Jerome Dandjinou, a senior airport security official.
''The back of the plane hit a building at the end of the runway. There was a fire and an explosion was heard,'' Dandjinou told The Associated Press. ''The plane exploded and the debris fell into the water.'' The Atlantic Ocean is about 500 yards from the airport tarmac.
An Associated Press reporter saw dozens of bodies - men, women, children and babies - floating among the plane's wreckage about 150 yards off a Cotonou beach.
Television images showed pieces of the plane lying in the surf: a shorn-off landing gear, part of a wing, the cockpit and the rear part of the fuselage, along with an engine.
Tangled wires and metal hung from the ripped-open fuselage. One man sat in the sand, blood running down his bare chest. Another injured man held his head.
One of the Lebanese survivors, Nabil Hashem, told Al Manar television in Beirut that he was in the back of the plane and was able to swim to safety.
''Those in the front were the most hurt,'' Hashem said. ''May God's mercy fall on them. It was a horrible scene.''
Martin Chobli, a doctor with the emergency medical service, SAMU, said at least 57 bodies had been taken to a hospital morgue, and ''we are receiving reports that more bodies are coming out of the water.''
He said the army, the paramilitary police and the Red Cross all had rescue teams at the scene.
A solemn Benin President Mathieu Kerekou also visited the crash site.
Thousands of Lebanese immigrants live and work in West African countries. Most of the passengers on Thursday's flight were believed to be returning home for the Christmas holidays.
''This is a catastrophe that touches every house in Lebanon and every Lebanese,'' Obeid, the Lebanese foreign minister told reporters at Beirut airport.
Airport officials in Beirut said the plane had been chartered by two Lebanese men from United Transit Airlines; but officials in Guinea, where the plan began its trip, identified the company as Union des Transports Africain. Air France said the company was unrelated to the former French airline UTA, which was absorbed by Air France a decade ago.
In Beirut, Mikati said the transportation ministry had ''refused to register the plane ... because we were not satisfied with technical matters'' relating to it. He did not elaborate. Guinean aviation officials said the plane was owned by Lebanese and registered in Guinea.
Guinean officials said some Sierra Leone and Guinean nationals were also aboard the plane, but it was not known how many.
Mohammed Khazen, a brother of one of the businessmen who chartered the plane, was weeping when reached by phone in Beirut.
''Six people from my family - including nephews - are on the flight and I have no information about them,'' he said.
Three families gathered at the arrival lounge at Beirut airport. Some wept; others prayed to God to spare their loved ones.
Zeina Shemaytelli clutched her 3-year-old daughter and wept as others tried to calm her down.