COTONOU, Benin – Rescue teams searched waters off the West African nation of Benin (search) on Friday in a desperate hunt for survivors of a plane crash that killed at least 111 people, the health minister said.
The Boeing 727 (search) crashed on takeoff Thursday, scattering debris into the Atlantic Ocean just 500 yards from the airport. On Friday, the bulk of the destroyed aircraft still lay in the water.
Most of the casualties were Lebanese headed home for the Christmas holidays. Thousands of Lebanese immigrants work in West African countries.
Benin Health Minister Celine Seignon Kandissounon (search) told reporters 111 were now confirmed dead. At least 20 people survived, said Transport Minister Ahmed Akobi.
It was unclear exactly how many people were aboard the chartered aircraft. Akobi said the plane's manifest listed 156 passengers and an unknown number of crew.
With spotlights perched on the beach and flashlights in hand, divers and fishermen searched for survivors overnight, swimming through scattered pieces of luggage, clothes and gift-wrapped presents. Workers tied chains to parts of the wreckage and dragged them out of the surf with tractors.
About 50 Lebanese nationals gathered along the shore before dawn, crowding around bodies — pulled from the water one by one — to identify friends or relatives.
"This is all too much for me to handle," said Akim Toufik.
There was no word on what caused the tragedy. Akobi said rescue teams were searching for the aircraft's flight data recorder.
The Boeing lifted off on a sunny Thursday at 2:55 p.m. from the airport in Cotonou, and troubles began right away, 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 flight originated in the Guinean capital, Conakry, and stopped in Freetown, Sierra Leone. It was bound for Beirut, Lebanese Transportation Minister Najib Mikati said.
Authorities shut down Cotonou airport for 24 hours after the crash as a security precaution, Akobi said. Lebanese Foreign Minister Jean Obeid said it closed because the plane apparently damaged part of the airport's guidance system.
On Friday, Obeid arrived in Cotonou on a flight from Beirut that was given special permission to land despite the airport's closure.
"This is a catastrophe that touches every house in Lebanon and every Lebanese," Obeid said earlier at Beirut airport.
Ten Lebanese army divers headed to the crash scene to gather remains, while a six-man Lebanese medical team was sent to Benin hospitals to help treat the wounded, Obeid told the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp.
A Lebanese survivor, 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."