How Blunders and Neglect Stoked an African Air TragedyDownpour, Dark Runway Spell End for 60 Children; Crisis Across the Continent
PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria -- Just shy of her 12th birthday, Owanari Amachree told her diary she was too young to figure out what she called life's puzzle. There's still plenty of time, she wrote. "I still got like 70 or 80 years left."
A day after her 13th birthday, Owanari died in a plane that smashed into the ground at the airport here, the capital of Nigeria's rich oil industry. The runway lights were off, in part because the airport hadn't bought a generator.
The plane, crash investigators said, should never have tried to land. A storm was lashing the area. But the pilots didn't know that, because the airport didn't have its own weather warning system. It also had only one firetruck. Owanari and many other victims appeared to have survived the impact but died later when engulfed in flames. Owanari's father says he found her with her fists clenched in front of her, as if she'd been beating on a window pane.
She was one of 60 children returning from boarding school who died in the Dec. 10, 2005, crash of Nigeria's Sosoliso Airlines Flight 1145. They and 48 others who perished were like many victims of African plane crashes: casualties of widespread neglect that makes this continent's skies the most dangerous in the world. Africa accounts for less than 5% of global airline traffic. It accounts for roughly 25% of crashes.
For decades, African aviation has suffered from antiquated planes, crumbling airports, broken equipment and poorly trained pilots. The broadest reason for the dismal safety record is simply that governments haven't enforced minimal standards. Powerless, or in some cases dishonest, regulators allow ill-equipped carriers to fly with little regard for safety. Airports stay open without electricity or qualified air-traffic controllers. Emergency services lack equipment or disaster plans.
The multitude of blunders behind the crash that killed the 60 children from one school was particularly striking, given that just a few weeks earlier, a crash by another Nigerian jetliner had taken 117 lives. A public outcry followed the one that killed the children, and Nigeria's president fired Nigeria's civil-aviation director, Fidelis Onyeyiri, and its air-traffic management chief, Emperor Onasanya. Neither could be reached for comment. "There's a lot of corner-cutting at the expense of precious Nigerian lives," said the then-president, Olusegun Obasanjo, at a meeting of aviation officials, according to press reports of the gathering.
The government took some steps to improve air safety after the 2005 crashes. It barred planes older than 30 years. Concerned that many airlines couldn't afford training and maintenance, it raised their minimum capital, a move that forced more than 20 carriers to close. Nigeria also made its Civil Aviation Authority independent of elected officials, seeking to end years of meddling by politicians with financial stakes in dodgy carriers.
But a year later, yet another Nigerian jetliner, this one flown by an airline called ADC, crashed on takeoff, killing 96. Under pressure to remove his transport minister, Mr. Obasanjo switched the official, Babalola Borishade, to another ministry. Mr. Borishade couldn't be reached for comment.
At the Nigerian Ministry of Transportation today, Suleiman Kassim, permanent secretary for aviation, says the government is investing millions of dollars in new infrastructure such as radar and runway lighting and is training safety inspectors and air-traffic controllers.
Parents of the children killed in the Sosoliso crash have been educating themselves on air safety, and many are doubtful that current efforts will bring real change. "If another crash happens, there's no sign that the government is ready," says Joseph Ajilore, an oil-company manager who lost a teenage son in the Sosoliso Airlines crash 21 months ago.
On that sunny December Saturday, Nimi and Kunbi Amachree had risen early to pick up their daughter, Owanari, at the airport. She and 59 other children were coming home for Christmas from Loyola Jesuit College, a high school in Abuja, 300 miles away.
The family had arranged a surprise party for her 13th birthday. Also to be celebrated: Owanari had gotten on the honor list. She dreamed of going to Johns Hopkins medical school in Baltimore one day. "She had it all mapped out," her mother says.
Port Harcourt children who attend the boarding school once traveled to it by bus. As crime on Nigeria's crumbling roads rose in the 1990s, parents felt the 20-hour trip had become too dangerous. When the small Sosoliso Airlines started flying the route in 2001, parents flocked to it.
Flying had its own risks. In July 2005, an Air France plane narrowly avoided disaster when it landed in Port Harcourt amid a herd of cattle, which had wandered onto the runway through gaps in the airport fence.
In November 2005, Isaac Okemini, a government economic official, was on a Sosoliso flight that made an emergency landing. He recalls telling his wife that the carrier was "an accident waiting to happen."
A month later, he, the Amachrees and other parents arrived at Port Harcourt's airport around noon, chatting as they waited for their children to land. No arrival information had been posted because, as often was the case at the airport, the electricity was out. Nigeria's aging grid can't handle surging demand. Although Port Harcourt is a gateway to Nigeria's oil-rich Niger Delta, the state-owned airport never got funding for a backup generator.
The McDonnell Douglas DC-9 flew most of its route in fair weather, according to the official crash report. The problems started as it approached its landing.
As a coastal city, Port Harcourt is subject to abrupt weather shifts. Even so, the airport had never bought its own meteorological equipment. Air-traffic controllers had to rely on information from the country's national meteorological agency -- updates they received only at half-hour intervals.
The pilots didn't get even the latest of these updates. When they radioed in at 1:40 p.m. for landing instructions and a weather report, controllers gave them the state agency's bulletin from 1 p.m. Had the tower relayed the 1:30 p.m. one, the pilots would have known the weather was worsening.
At 2 p.m., the pilots checked again, asking specifically whether it was raining. Controllers said no. Four minutes later, controllers told the pilots of approaching rain. They didn't alert them to the severity of the storm ahead.
At 2:05 p.m., as torrents pounded the airport, controllers cleared the plane to land, according to the crash report. They cautioned that the runway was slightly wet. But they neglected to convey another piece of information: The wind had changed direction, making landing far tougher. The pilot didn't ask for wind information, and the tower didn't offer it.
Investigators later concluded the plane probably encountered so-called wind shear, sudden changes in airflow that can slam a plane to the ground.
Landing in high winds and rain is hard enough, but the pilots were hindered by yet another failing. Administrators of the airport had ordered the runway illuminated only at night unless a pilot specifically requested lights. The Sosoliso crew didn't, so, despite the storm, the runway lights remained off.
At this point, the pilots might have considered waiting to land until the weather cleared, investigators say. Instead, still unaware of how bad the weather was near the ground, they proceeded as planned. "Since the crew was not expecting danger, there was no way they could have been prepared," Angus Ozoka, chief investigator on the case, said in an interview.
The pilots descended below the so-called decision height of 220 feet, beneath which aborting a landing is far riskier. Approaching the runway, the plane was buffeted by the wind. The last thing Kechi Okwuchi, who was one of the two survivors, remembers is agitated passengers gasping as the plane sped toward the ground.
Seconds from landing, the pilots tried to abort and climb again. It was too late. The tail section bounced off a grass strip 230 feet left of the runway.
When the plane came down after the bounce, it might have skidded to a jarring stop. But another blunder interfered, this one involving the airport's design. A rainwater drainage ditch and culvert ran close to the runway. As the plane hit the ground a second time, one of its two engines caught in the depression and was sheared off, according to the crash report. Now the jetliner began to disintegrate, chunks cartwheeling half a mile down the airfield.
Many passengers were still alive at this point, according to eyewitness and investigators' reports. Many might have survived, investigators say, had the airport been prepared for a crash. Instead, it had no ambulances. Its one firetruck soon ran out of foam and water. As workers tried to rescue passengers, flames engulfed the plane.Back at the terminal, parents at first knew nothing of the crash. From their waiting place outdoors, they couldn't see or hear the runway.
Suddenly, the lights inside the terminal building went on. Parents spotted smoke. One parent, Kosmos Ntemuse, broke open a gate and sprinted to the wreckage. He searched for his 12-year-old son, Emmanuel. The dead child was still inside the plane.
Mr. Okemini, the economic official, says he dashed onto the runway with a young daughter, and covered her eyes as she screamed. "There were lots of bodies all over the place," he says. "The firetruck was just sitting there."
Word spread that survivors had been taken to an emergency medical center. Andy Ilabor, a physician whose three children were all aboard the flight, rushed to the center. He says he found only a dilapidated bungalow where two badly burned victims lay unattended on the dirty floor with intravenous drips in their arms. Nearby, a janitor was raising dust with a broom.
The next day, Dr. Ilabor and his wife went to the morgue. Dozens of bodies lay piled outside in the steamy air, wet from an early rain, he says. His son, Chuka, a gangly 15-year-old who towered over his parents, had wanted to study medicine in America. Chuka's body was so mangled his mother identified him by his big toes, which bent like her husband's. She also found the body of their daughter Buso, 11. They never found another daughter, 14-year-old Nkem. Introverted and prim, Nkem had been writing a novel, which remains unopened on a computer at home. Her body was one of six never identified.
Mr. Ajilore, the oil-company manager, identified the remains of his son, Wole, four days later through dental records, just as another family was about to bury him as their son.
The crash killed 108 people in all. Since the crash, parents of the children of Sosoliso Flight 1145 have been fighting to improve Nigeria's air safety. They sued the government and the airline, and have refused settlements, seeing the still-delayed trial as a way to publicize the need for change.