Commuter Flight Crashes in Lagos, Nigeria, Killing at Least 153

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Akintunde Akinleye / Reuters

People gather near the engine of a plane that crashed into a neighborhood on the outskirts of Lagos, Nigeria, on June 3, 2012

Updated: June 4, 2012

A commuter flight plunged into a densely populated area of Lagos, Nigeria, on Sunday, likely killing all 153 passengers as well as scores more on the ground. The flight hit two buildings before exploding into flames, an official tells TIME. Surrounding homes and shops were also destroyed: television pictures showed the fuselage of the plane lodged in a building, one of its wings detached.

The debris and raging fire meant rescue services were struggling to reach the crash site. "Thick black smoke is surrounding the area, and fire at the wreckage is making search-and-rescue efforts difficult," says Tunji Oketunbi, a spokesman for Nigeria's Accident Investigation Bureau, from the scene. Yushua Shuaib, spokesman for the National Emergency Management Agency, adds that rescuers were struggling to stop the fire from spreading in the densely packed area. "Fire services are trying their best," he says. Nigeria's civil-aviation authority has yet to release an official death toll. "It is unlikely anyone onboard the plane survived, unless there is a miracle," says Oketunbi.

Lagos is home to at least 15 million people, many of them living in crowded shantytowns. The plane, which was arriving from the Nigerian capital, Abuja, around two hours' flight to the north, crashed in the suburb of Agege, not far from Lagos' Murtala Muhammed Airport. The area is highly populated. Clapperboard businesses and shacks tightly pack the dirt roads. Shuaib says many residents had been trapped in their homes by the fire or the collapse of their building. "Some are critically injured," he says. "We still can't determine whether the survivors are passengers or residents." Relatives unable to reach family members by phone rushed to the crash site, fearing the worst.

Though the death toll and cause of the crash are not yet known, President Goodluck Jonathan declared three days of national mourning and tried to reassure travelers about Nigerian air safety. "President Jonathan assures air travelers in the country that every possible effort will be made to ensure that the right lessons are learned from the tragic loss of valuable lives in today's plane crash and that further measures will be put in place to boost aviation safety in the country," a statement from the President said.

Nigeria has a poor record of airline safety. In 2006, 96 people died when an ADC airliner with 114 passengers onboard crashed and burned on takeoff from Abuja. Sunday's crash was the second in 24 hours. On Saturday night, a Boeing 727 cargo plane crashed into Ghana's international airport, killing at least 10 people. The plane flew from Lagos, and it hit the ground during a failed landing.