Nigerian Authorities Find Black Box From Crashed Airliner; 96 Feared Dead, 9 Injured

Investigators found one of two black boxes from a Nigerian airliner that smashed into the ground just after takeoff, killing 96 people in the third mass-casualty jet crash to hit this West African nation in less than a year, officials said Monday.

The Boeing 737 — owned by the private Nigerian airline, Aviation Development Co. — was carrying 100 passengers and five crew when it went down just moments after taking off from Nigeria's capital on Sunday. Releasing the flight manifest, the airline said 96 people died and nine were hospitalized in Abuja.

There was no word on what caused the fiery crash, but the plane reportedly crashed in stormy weather.

Rowland Iyayi, head of the National Air Space Management Agency, said a Virgin Airlines flight that had been on the runway at about the same time as the ADC flight did not take off because of strong winds. Iyayi did not say, however, that bad weather had caused the crash, and stressed investigations were ongoing.

Asgus Ozoka, who heads Nigeria's Accident Investigation and Prevention Bureau, said one of the plane's so-called black boxes was recovered late Sunday and handed over to police officials involved in the investigation. It was not immediately known whether it was the flight data recorder or the cockpit voice recorder.

Among those confirmed dead was Nigeria's top Muslim leader, Muhammadu Maccido. Maccido was sultan of the northern state of Sokoto and headed the National Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs in Nigeria, which announces when Muslim fasts should begin and end, and decides issues of policy for Nigeria's overwhelmingly Sunni Muslims.

Maccido's body was immediately flown to Sokoto, where thousands of people were gathered at the airport. Maccido was buried late Sunday in accordance with Islamic custom. The Sokoto state government declared six days of mourning.

The plane crashed at 10:29 a.m. local time (0929 GMT), one minute after taking off from Abuja airport, said Sam Adurogboye, an Aviation Ministry spokesman. President Olusegun Obasanjo ordered an immediate investigation, his spokeswoman Remi Oyo said in a statement.

Rescue workers racing to the scene Sunday found debris from the plane, body parts and passengers' luggage strewn over an area the size of a soccer pitch. The plane went down in a tree-filled field inside the sprawling airport compound about 3 kilometers (2 miles) from the runway. Smoke rose from the aircraft's mangled and smoldering fuselage. It's tail, hanging from a tree, was one of the few recognizable parts.

Emergency workers pulled blackened corpses from what was left of the twisted wreckage. They covered the bodies with white sheets and hauled them away in stretchers. An AP reporter counted at least 50 cadavers, though other bodies had been transported earlier to local morgues.

Rescue efforts ended just after 5 p.m. (1700 GMT). Ibrahim Farinloye, a spokesman for the national emergency agency, said the next step would be getting family members to identify the dead.

Through the day, airport security officials kept back anxious, upset mobs of people seeking information about friends or loved ones.

The plane was bound for the northwest city of Sokoto, about 800 kilometers (500 miles) northwest of Abuja, state radio said, adding that it had gone down during a storm. Witnesses said there was a rainstorm around the time the aircraft took off, but rains later subsided, giving way to overcast skies.

Mustapha Shehu, spokesman for the Sokoto state government, had said earlier that the sultan's son, Muhammed Maccido, a senator, was also aboard the flight, along with Abdulrahman Shehu Shagari, son of former Nigerian President Shehu Shagari, who was in office between 1979 and 1983. Their fates were not immediately clear.

About half of Nigeria's 130 million people are Muslims. The country is the most populous in Africa and the continent's leading oil exporter.

Oyo said Obasanjo was "deeply and profoundly shocked and saddened ... he condoles all Nigerians, especially family, friends and associates of those who may have been on board."

The 23-year-old aircraft, a Boeing 737-2B7 owned by Aviation Development Co., a private Nigerian airline, was manufactured in 1983, Adurogboye said. ADC last suffered a crash in November 1996, when one of its jets plunged into a lagoon outside Nigeria's main city, Lagos, killing all 143 aboard.

Nigeria's air industry is notoriously unsafe. Last year, two planes flying domestic routes crashed within seven weeks of each other, killing 224 people.

On Oct. 22, 2005, a Boeing 737-200 plane belonging to Bellview airlines crashed soon after takeoff from the country's main city of Lagos, killing all 117 people aboard. On Dec. 10, a McDonnell Douglas DC-9 plane operated by Sosoliso Airlines crashed while approaching the oil city of Port Harcourt, killing 107 people, most of them school children going home for Christmas.

Earlier this month, authorities released a report blaming the Sosoliso crash on bad weather and pilot error. The investigation of the Bellview crash is still continuing.

After last year's air crashes, Obasanjo vowed to overhaul Nigeria's airline industry, blaming some of the industry's problems on corruption. Airlines were subjected to checks for air-worthiness and some planes considered unworthy were grounded.