Nigerian Jetliner Crashes On Takeoff All Aboard Feared Dead
JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia (AP) _ A DC-8 jetliner carrying Muslim pilgrims home to Nigeria crashed in flames today moments after takeoff, officials and witnesses said. At least 250 people were aboard, and all were believed killed.
The pilot called the King Abdel-Aziz international airport control tower to say the plane had ″technical trouble″ and was returning, said airport and other sources who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Other aviation sources, who also would not be identified, said the pilot reported fire in the plane’s landing gear. They said he was advised to dump his fuel and return, but the plane exploded into pieces before he could.
If all aboard were killed, it would one of the world’s worst commercial aviation disaster.
Holdtrade, a private Nigerian comapany, chartered the plane from Nationair, a Montreal-based carrier. A Holdtrade official in Lagos, Nigeria, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the plane’s right engine caught fire 15 mintues after takeoff and the pilot tried to return to Jiddah.
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.
There were conflicting reports on the number of people on board.
Holdtrade said there were 239 passengers and 11 crew on board. Nationair and an agent at Nareen Travel in Jiddah, which arranged for the charter, said the jet carried 264 people.
Witnesses said they saw, from a considerable distance, smoke and fire coming from the plane as it flew low over the runway. They said they thought it had caught fire as it was taking off.
One of the witnesses, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he later ran as close as he could get to the site and found ″the plane crashed to the ground, and flames shooting into the air as high as six-story buildings.″
He said the plane was ″certainly all small pieces, no big pieces around.″
The witness said the scene had turned into ″a medley of trailers, ambulances, fire brigades, cars. ... They are trying to put out the flames and pick up the remains of the bodies.″
The Canadian Transportation Safety Board planned to send four inspectors to the crash site, said spokeswoman Maryse Lalonde.
The crash could be among the top 10 air disasters, depending on the death toll. On Nov. 28, 1979, 257 were killed when an Air New Zealand DC-10 taking tourists to the South Pole struck an Antarctic mountain in what was listed as the 10th worst air crash.
The Nigerians were on their way home from performing the ritual known as the hajj, required of every able-bodied Muslim once in his or her life.
The ritual involves visiting the holy cities of Mecca and Medina via the route taken by the prophet Mohammed when he established the religion of Islam about 14 centuries ago.
About 2 million Muslims - including hundreds of thousands of foreigners - performed this year’s hajj, which climaxed June 21.
The pilgrims spend weeks preparing for their arrival, and it can also take weeks for them to depart.
The hajj is usually marked by trouble, either political disputes or security problems that arise from accommodating the large numbers of pilgrims.
But this year the hajj had passed without incident. Last year, 1,426 pilgrims died in a stampede in a tunnel connecting sites at Mecca.
Nigeria sends about 10,000 pilgrims to Saudi Arabia every year. It is Africa’s most populous nation, and more than half its 100 million people are Muslim.