JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Dozens of people died after a Boeing 727 struggled to take off from an airport in the West African country of Benin on Thursday, hit a building at the end of the runway, exploded and crashed nose down into shallow water.
Most of the dead were Lebanese immigrants who were on their way to Beirut for vacations. Several of the victims were children. The plane's capacity was 141, but there were conflicting reports about the number of passengers on board.
Some reports said at least 90 people died. The cause of the crash was not known, and the death toll was climbing as rescuers continued to pull corpses from the water.
Up to 22 people survived the crash, according to officials in Benin. Television footage showed images of injured, bleeding people sitting on a beach near the city of Cotonou. A crew member was reportedly among the survivors, the South African Press Assn. said.
Dozens of bodies were spotted floating near the crash site, many of which washed up onto the beach along with pieces of plane wreckage and luggage.
The plane's battered cockpit, an engine and other debris lay in the surf amid a crowd of onlookers.
The Union Transport Africains plane, owned by a charter company, had originated in Conakry, the capital of Guinea, and picked up 63 passengers in Benin, most of them members of West Africa's large Lebanese community, according to airport officials. It was to fly to Beirut via Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
In Guinea, 31 passengers boarded the plane, according to Reuters.
One airport official, Jerome Dandjinou, told Associated Press that the number on board was close to 200.
The plane crashed shortly before 3 p.m. about 150 yards offshore. A crowd gathered on the beach as fishermen and locals plunged into the water in a rescue effort. Relatives reportedly raced to the scene to help in the attempt to rescue survivors and recover victims' bodies.
The deputy mayor of Cotonou, Lehaby Soglo, told Agence France-Presse news agency that a dozen survivors were rescued. But Reuters quoted the Lebanese Transport Minister, Najib Mikati, as saying 19 people survived the crash. It also cited Benin's health minister, Celine Segnon, as saying 22 survived.
Mikati said one of the survivors was the plane's co-pilot.
One factor that may have caused the crash was that the plane reportedly had difficulty retracting its landing gear. There were also reports from witnesses that the plane skidded as it hurtled along the runway and struggled to take off.
Air crashes occur frequently in Africa because of aging aircraft and poor maintenance standards.