LAGOS, Nigeria – Twisted chunks of metal, ripped luggage and mangled bodies turned a swath of woods into a grisly scene after a Nigerian passenger plane carrying 117 people crashed shortly after takeoff and officials said Sunday that all aboard were feared dead.
Red Cross and government officials said search teams found no sign that anyone on the Boeing 737 (search) survived when it plunged to earth Saturday night after leaving Lagos, the biggest city in Nigeria (search).
"It was a very pitiable sight. The aircraft was partly submerged (in the ground) and broken into several pieces," said Fidelis Onyenyiri, chief of the National Civil Aviation Authority (search). "There were similarly no survivors from what we saw."
The State Department said one American was on the flight.
President Olusegun Obasanjo, grieving for his wife who died in Spain within hours of the crash, asked "all Nigerians to pray for all those aboard the plane and their families."
Confusion reigned for hours after the disaster, reflecting sometimes inefficient government in this West African nation of 130 million people and its freewheeling air transport system in which a dozen local airlines fly from chaotic airports where crowds fight over seats in planes.
Abilola Oloko, spokesman for Oyo state, where the Bellview Airlines jet went down, initially reported that more than half those on the doomed plane had survived. But he reversed himself a few hours later, blaming chaos at the crash scene for conflicting reports.
There also was confusion about the crash site itself.
Officials first said the pilots issued a distress call before the plane disappeared from radar while over the Atlantic Ocean about 15 miles west of Lagos and said helicopters were searching the sea for wreckage.
A police spokesman later reported that search teams located the crashed craft far inland, near Kishi, 120 miles north of Lagos. But Red Cross officials later said the wreck was found in a wooded area near Lissa, a small town 30 miles north of Lagos.
A local TV station, Africa Independent Television, broadcast video of villagers looking over charred wreckage of a white Boeing 737 in an uninhabited wooded area near Lissa.
The aircraft was in several pieces, and the sky-blue streaked logo of Bellview Airlines could be seen on the shattered tail. No rescue workers were visible in the footage.
There was no immediate indication of what caused the crash, but it was not thought to be terrorist-related.
"The weather was not too bad but there was lightning, and an airplane struck by lightning could lose total control," said Onyenyiri, the civil aviation chief.
He said investigators were searching for the plane's flight data recorders.
Initial reports indicated the plane lost contact with the Lagos control tower five minutes after taking off from Murtala Muhammed international airport at 8:45 p.m. Saturday, said Jide Ibinola, a spokesman for the Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria.
The plane was headed to the capital, Abuja, on what was supposed to have been a 50-minute flight from Lagos, the country's business and financial center.
The route is frequented by Nigerian officials and foreign executives and diplomats, and as news of the crash got out, representatives of many countries gathered at the Lagos airport to check whether any of their citizens were on board.
Most on the plane were believed to be Nigerians. State Department spokesman Edgar Vasquez said one American was aboard, but declined to release the victim's name because of privacy concerns.
Bellview, a privately owned Nigerian company that operates a fleet of mostly Boeing 737s on routes throughout West Africa and to London, first began flying about 10 years ago and had not had a crash before. Many consider it to be among the most reliable of Nigeria's airlines.
The crash was Nigeria's worst air disaster since May 2002, when an EAS Airlines jet — another domestic carrier — plowed into a heavily populated neighborhood in the northern city of Kano just after takeoff, killing 154 people in the plane and on the ground.
Soon after the latest crash, Nigeria's president suffered another blow when his wife, Stella, died in Spain. She would have been 60 next month.
In a one-sentence statement signed by the presidential spokeswoman, Remi Oyo, described her as Obasanjo's "beloved wife." No further details were given as to what caused her death.
The Spanish Foreign Ministry said she died Sunday morning at a hospital in the southern resort city of Marbella, where she was on a private visit. It had no information on the cause of death and did not know if she had undergone surgery, as asserted by Nigerian officials in Abuja.
The body was taken to a coroner's office in nearby Malaga for an autopsy, the ministry said.