Carrier defends itself over Nigeria plane crash

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By JON GAMBRELL, Associated Press

LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — A Nigerian airline whose airplane crashed in the country's largest city, killing 153 on board and more on the ground, defended itself Wednesday against growing public criticism, saying its own chief engineer died on the doomed flight.

Francis Ogboro, an executive who oversees Dana Air, also told journalists the MD-83 that crashed Sunday underwent strenuous checks like the others the carrier owns and that he routinely flies.

The chief engineer "certainly would not have allowed that aircraft to take off" if there was a problem, Ogboro said. "No airline crew would go on a suicide mission."

Emergency officials on Wednesday stopped searching for those killed at the crash site in Iju-Ishaga, the Lagos neighborhood about nine kilometers (five miles) from Lagos' Murtala Muhammed International Airport. Searchers there recovered 153 complete corpses as well as fragmented remains before halting their efforts, said Yushau Shuaib, a spokesman for Nigeria's National Emergency Management Agency.

It is unclear from the fragments collected how many victims there are, officials said, acknowledging that a complete death toll could likely take weeks.

"I think we can only be sure of the number at the end of the scientific investigation that is going on," Lagos state attorney general Ade Ipaye said.

Officials now plan to survey the neighborhood to find who remains missing after the plane smashed into two apartment buildings, a printing business and a woodshop, Shuaib said. Those still missing would be presumed dead until DNA testing or other forensic tests links them to the dead, officials said.

During a news conference Wednesday, authorities said relatives of the dead should come to Lagos to provide tissue samples and be photographed. However, such DNA testing likely would need to be done outside of Nigeria, a nation with erratic electricity from a state-run power company and a largely mismanaged government.

The cause of the crash on a sunny, clear Sunday afternoon remains unknown. The flight's captain radioed Lagos as the aircraft approached and declared an emergency, saying both of the MD-83's engines had failed, Aviation Minister Stella Oduah said Wednesday. The plane crashed minutes later.

Ogboro and others declined to speculate what could have made both of the aircraft's Pratt and Whitney engines go out in the last minutes of the flight.

Authorities already have collected the flight voice and data recorders from the airplane and plan to send them to the United States for analysis Thursday, Oduah said. The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board also has sent an investigator to assist Nigeria's Accident Investigation Board, which probes airplane crashes.

Families and diplomats continued to attempt to identify the dead, hampered by conflicting flight manifests.

On Wednesday, U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the number of dead American citizens in the crash had risen to nine from seven.

Britain's foreign ministry said that Antonia Attuh, a woman with dual Nigerian and British citizenship, died in the crash. Indian diplomats also believe Indian national Rijo K. Eldhose and flight co-pilot Mahendra Singh Rathore, an American of Indian origin, also were killed, said Rani Malik, an officer at India's High Commission in Lagos.

Others killed in the crash included at least seven Americans, at least four Chinese citizens, two Lebanese nationals, a French citizen and a Canadian, officials have said.

Popular anger has risen in Nigeria against the airline since the crash. On Tuesday, the Nigerian government said it had indefinitely suspended Dana Air's license to fly as a safety precaution. However, while offering sympathy for those who died in the crash, Ogboro predicted the airline would resume operations within a few weeks after proving to the government its fleet of MD-83s are safe.

"We ensure that we go by the rules," he said. "I am almost certain they will find that we have not done anything contravening the aviation rules, because all of those aircraft are well maintained. There's absolutely no doubt about that."

Identifying the dead likely will take longer, officials say. At the site Wednesday, a worker in a yellow safety vest flipped through a photo album pulled from the debris, a series of photographs of weddings and christenings smeared with mud.

Nearby, a crane lifted up the tail of the crashed plane as workers began to remove pieces of the aircraft from the site. Fresh black paint covered the faded Dana Air logo on the fuselage.

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Associated Press writer Bashir Adigun in Abuja, Nigeria contributed to this report.

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Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellap .

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