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Nigeria's Plane Crash, Told in Photos, and in an Author's Prescient Warning

On Sunday afternoon, the pilot of a Dana Air McDonnell Douglas MD-83, flying out of Abuja, called into the control tower at Lagos, the Nigerian mega-city where he was shortly scheduled to land, to report engine trouble. Two months earlier, one of the engines had lost power after a bird strike. Now, the pilot said he was having difficulty with two of the engines. On the ground, some people is the neighborhood of Ishaga, not far from the airport, heard a loud vibrating sound and came outside, where they saw the plane flying low. The McDonnell Douglas airliner, which at 148 feet was about as long as a 15-story tower is tall, slammed into the side of a building. The crash and the fire, which raged through the night, killed all 153 passengers. No one is sure how many people on the ground may have died; rescue workers are still digging through the rubble.

It may be some time before we know the full extent of the damage, and much longer before we understand what caused the crash. But as emergency workers and Nigerian officials comb through the Lagos crash site, photographers are there as well, capturing the surreal scene, as well as the shocked and grieving community that went, in a few brief moments, from a neighborhood to a disaster scene. Here are some of their photos, as well as the unnervingly prescient March 15 tweets of Nigerian-American author Teju Cole worrying about whether Nigerian aviation had really become so much safer since it suffered three high-profile crashes in a one-year period. "It's hard to shake the feeling that soon, too soon, another Nigerian plane will fall from the sky," he wrote.

mfn engine AP.jpg

Onlookers, who rushed out of their homes on hearing (and, reportedly, feeling) the crash, find the jet engines lying next to what appears to be an impact crater. Because of several fires, the first-responders found the crash scene flooded with smoke, giving these first photos from Ishaga an otherworldly feel. (AP).

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Local residents hoist a firehose across the debris to help put out some of the fires that had started. Firefighers and other emergency workers struggled to arrive as quickly as possible, but were reportedly delayed by the infamous traffic in Lagos, which has sprawled ever-wider over recent years. (AP).

mfn firehouse2 AP.jpg

One of the volunteers stands on the plane's destroyed wing, waiting for a firefighter to arrive with another section of firehose. Seeing the remarkable number of locals who rushed toward the crash scene, rather than away, it's hard not to think of the Americans who pitched in at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Though the events are obviously of different natures and scales, they share an ability to galvanize these communities to help one another in a time of catastrophe (AP).

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A rescue worker -- it's not clear if he is a professional or simply a volunteering local -- combs through the rubble by hand, perhaps in an effort to recover some of the 153 people killed on the flight. (Reuters).

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Onlookers discover a destroyed landing gear from the MD-83. It was still warm to the touch, according to the photographer. (AP).

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Rescue workers and locals look over the crash scene in Lagos, one of the world's largest and fastest-growing cities and over 10 million people. The plane crashed in the neighborhood of Ishaga, which is only about two miles south of the Lagos airport. (Reuters).

mfn house AP.jpg

Security officers and rescue workers struggled to keep onlookers, like those gathered on top of this building to watch, from interfering in their work. People, some helpful and some just curious, streamed in from Lagos's crowded nearby neighborhoods. (AP).

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An official rescue worker looks over the scene at Ishaga. Nigeria has suffered a number of aviation disasters, including an October 2005 crash that killed 117 people, a December 2005 crash that killed 108, and an October 2006 crash that killed 106. Since then, Nigerian aviation standards are said to have improved. In 2010, the FAA gave it a category one safety rating, which the L.A. Times translates as "meaning the country complied with international safety standards in relation to training, technical expertise and other issues." (AP).

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Rescue workers carry a body bag from the crash scene. "The fear is that since it happened in a residential area, there may have been many people killed," a government spokesperson warned, meaning the death toll could be well beyond the 153 on the plane. (Reuters).

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Onlookers watch as a crane lifts the now-separated tail from the impact crater. (Reuters).

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On Monday, the crash scene now quieter, officials marked off boundaries to separate the disaster zone from the still-functioning neighborhood that surrounds it. (AP).

Two and half months ago, Nigerian-American author Teju Cole worried on Twitter about the safety of Nigerian aviation. He cited the recent power outages at airports in Abuja and Lagos -- the departure and destination cities of Sunday's flight -- and the 2005 and 2006 disasters that had so shaken Nigeria. In retrospect, depending on your perspective, his warning can seem chillingly prescient, distressingly unheeded, or perhaps just a coincidence. Either way, they were widely circulated at the time and, with President Goodluck Jonathan's as-predicted show of mourning, resonate again today.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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