Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan (centre) stands with Lagos state governor Babatunde Fashola (right) at the site of the Dana Air plane crash in Lagos.

Abuja - As Nigeria began three days of national mourning for the victims of the Dana Air plane crash, the company's director of flight operations said in a statement that the aircraft that came down on Sunday was “serviceable and operational”.

More than 153 people were killed when the domestic passenger plane travelling from the capital, Abuja, crashed into a heavily populated area of Lagos shortly before 4pm on Sunday.

Captain Oscar Wilson said that although the McDonnell Douglas 83 plane was 22 years old, it was in good condition.

“We don't allow our aircraft to fly if not in perfect condition,” Wilson said. “I did the test flight of the questioned aircraft myself, there was nothing wrong with the aircraft, it was okay,” he said.

Earlier, Nigeria's Aviation Minister Stella Odua said the pilot had sent a distress signal minutes before the accident. The plane had apparently suffered engine troubles.

On Monday, several reports by local media outlets quoted unnamed Dana Airlines officials as saying the plane was “faulty”.

President Goodluck Jonathan on Monday visited the accident site in Lagos and promised a thorough investigation.

“We have been working very hard to improve aviation in this country,” Jonathan told reporters. “This particular incident is a major setback for us... I will make sure that this will not repeat itself in the country.”

As search teams stopped work on Monday night, 137 bodies had been removed from the crash site, said Yushua Shuaib, an emergency services spokesperson. At least two people were killed on the ground, officials said.

The operation was initially hampered by the presence of a large crowd at the site. Some onlookers climbed onto the wreckage of the McDonnell Douglas 83 plane and were dispersed by riot police who fired teargas, the Nigerian Red Cross said.

Many of the bodies were charred beyond recognition. Relatives of the victims flocked to an information centre set up by Dana Airlines, which has been operating in Nigeria for four years.

Government officials said earlier they did not expect to find any passengers alive. “We don't believe there are survivors,” Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) chief Harold Denuren said.

Witness Moshood Idowu said the plane did not burst into flames until a short while after it crashed into a two-storey residential and commercial building in the densely populated district of Iju-Ishaga.

“I saw the plane descending into the building, but it did not explode immediately, it took about 15 minutes... but there was no help to save (the passengers),” Idowu told reporters.

“While we were trying to rescue the people my brother got burnt and suffered injuries... now he is in the intensive care unit,” he added.

Four flight attendants and a captain, co-pilot and flight engineer were among those killed when the plane came down. According to the airline's Abuja manager, “the pilot, co-pilot and flight engineers (were) all foreigners”.

This Day newspaper reported that several high-ranking military and government officials and central bank bureaucrats were on board the plane for the journey of about 50 minutes.

Also among the passengers was a group of wedding guests, including children.

Six Chinese citizens were among the dead, Beijing's embassy in the West African nation said. A German development worker is believed to have been on the flight.

Rescue workers battled the fires for hours despite water outages in the area. At points they resorted to using buckets of water to quell the flames. Witnesses said the scenes around the crash site were chaotic.

Nigeria has an abysmal record of air safety, with more than 40 fatal crashes in the last 50 years. However, there has been a marked improvement in the last seven years, after a Boeing 737 belonging to the now defunct Bellview Airlines crashed into a village, killing 117 people.

A US pilot working on similar routes for West African airlines told reporters that flying in Nigeria has a high stress load and is chronically under-paid.

“Most of these jobs take an experienced expat pilot and put them with old aircraft and very low-time and under-experienced crew,” he said.

“The work load could get very high when the pilot is tasked with not only flying, but monitoring maintenance that may not have been carried out correctly,” he said.

In May, a Dana Air flight was forced to make an emergency landing in Lagos, the largest city of Africa's most populous nation. - Sapa-dpa