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Airplane Carrying Robed Nigerian Muslim Pilgrims Home Crashes

July 11, 1991

JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia (AP) _ A DC-8 jetliner carrying white-robed Nigerian pilgrims and a crew from Canada crashed in flames Thursday while attempting to make an emergency landing, witnesses said. There were no survivors among at least 261 people on board.

Bodies of the pilgrims were scattered across the Saudi desert after the plane nose-dived onto the tarmac and exploded shortly after takeoff, airport officials and the witnesses said.

The number of people aboard the plane was in dispute. The plane was leased from the Montreal-based carrier Nationair by a Nigerian company, Holdtrade, to carry the Muslim pilgrims home from Jiddah to Sokoto, Nigeria.

The pilot reported fire in the plane’s landing gear just after takeoff and tried to return to King Abdel-Aziz international airport, aviation sources said, speaking on condition of anonymity. They said he was advised to dump his fuel and return, but the plane hit the ground and exploded into pieces about half a mile from the main runway.

One witness said wreckage was ″scattered over 600 square yards in the southern desert expanses of the airport.″

″The bodies, some whole, some torn to pieces, some missing limbs and some with their faces disfigured, were mingled with personal items. Nothing was intact,″ said Khaled Nazer, an editor of the English-language Jiddah daily, Arab News.

The pilgrims’s white robes ″were reduced to black tatters,″ and some of the victims’s bodies were completely reddened ″as if they had been fried to death,″ Nazer added. ″It was awful.″

He said copies of the Koran, the Islam holy book, were scattered among the corpses. Three hours after the crash, smoke still rose above the plane’s burning fuselage, he said.

Holdtrade was set up by Ibrahim Dasuki, the son of Nigeria’s supreme Muslim leader, the Sultan of Sokoto, to charter aircraft to carry pilgrims.

Thousands of relatives of the victims massed at the Lagos airport and in Sokoto offices of Nigeria Airlines and the charter company awaiting word on the crash. Sokoto is in the heartland of Muslim-dominated northern Nigeria.

The Saudi and Nigerian governments said in separate announcements that 261 people, including a 14-member crew, were on board. The Nigerian announcement said the crew included Americans and Canadians, but later reports from Canada listed all the crew as from that country.

An agent at Areen Travel in Jiddah, which arranged the charter, said 249 Nigerian passengers and a crew of 11 Canadians, one Briton, one Irishwoman and a French citizen were aboard Flight WT2120.

Nationair officials said their plane was carrying 250 passengers and a crew of 14 - four from Toronto and the rest from other parts of Ontario - at the time of the accident.

The discrepancies could not be immediately reconciled.

Nationair was founded in the mid-1980s by Montreal businessman Robert Obadia.

A Saudi government statement said the flight had just taken off when the pilot radioed the tower saying he was returning because he had ″lost control of the landing gear and that there was a fire aboard.″

Witnesses said they saw the plane spewing smoke and fire as it flew low over the runway. They said it appeared it had caught fire as it was taking off.

One of the witnesses said he ran as close as he could to the crash site, where he described ″flames shooting into the air as high as six-story buildings.″

The witness said the plane was in ″small pieces, no big pieces around.″

He said the scene was ″a medley of trailers, ambulances, fire brigades, cars.″

Nazer said workers collected the bodies in separate bags, carrying them away in at least 15 trucks. Bulldozers were brought in to help push the trucks through the soft desert sand, he said.

The Nigerians were returning home after performing the pilgrimage known as the hajj, required of every able-bodied Muslim once in his or her life.

The ritual involves visiting sites and participating in religious ceremonies at the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Pilgrims imitate the route taken by the Prophet Mohammed when he established Islam about 14 centuries ago.

About 2 million Muslims performed this year’s hajj, which climaxed June 21. The hajj is usually marked by either political trouble or security problems. This year it had passed without incident until Thursday’s crash. Last year, 1,426 pilgrims died in a stampede in a tunnel connecting the sites at Mecca.

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