Five Lebanese army divers who arrived on Friday morning quickly joined rescue efforts begun by fishermen and beach-goers enjoying the Christmas holiday.
No bodies were trapped inside the tangled husk of the plane, but shortly afterwards the limp body of a child was found floating nearby.
The Union des Transports Africains (UTA) flight was transporting mostly Lebanese holidaymakers on their way home for the Christmas break.
A Lebanese official in Benin said 119 bodies had been recovered from the plane which had been carrying 151 passengers and 10 crew.
By Friday afternoon, 15 of the Lebanese dead had been identified and the bodies placed in coffins to be flown home.
The plane botched its take off and skidded down the runway, smashing into a building before tumbling nose down into the Gulf of Guinea.
The plane’s captain, a Libyan national, was among the survivors of what was the worst aviation tragedy in both Lebanese and Benin history.
Lebanese Foreign Minister Jean Obeid was scheduled to leave Benin’s capital Cotonou on Friday night after a day spent touring the crash site and comforting the 16 Lebanese survivors.
Beach goers celebrating
Those who felt fit enough to travel were “welcome” to depart with him aboard the Middle Eastern Airlines flight, Benin’s Foreign Minister Rogatien Biaou said.
“The bodies will be repatriated after, conforming to international standards,” he added.
A team of Benin officers fanned out across the beach meticulously picking up the smallest pieces of debris.
Responding to pleas from both the Benin and Lebanese governments, France offered a team of military divers to assist efforts to recover the plane’s second black box cockpit recorder.
They also supplied a DC-8 transport aircraft to aid in the repatriation of the Lebanese victims.
State radio, citing the Benin military, have already said a first black box has been recovered.
The UTA flight, which originated in the Guinean capital Conakry before picking up passengers in Cotonou, was bound for Beirut before heading to its final destination, Dubai.
Aviation officials suggested the plane was overloaded or unbalanced.
But transport Minister Hamed Akobi sought to curtail speculation on Friday as a national commission of inquiry was launched.
Distraught relatives heard about
“Right now it is difficult to tell what the real causes of this accident were,” he said. “Only the results of the investigation will make that clear.”
The Lebanese-owned carrier has run a weekly flight between Beirut and Cotonou for nearly two months, hoping to capitalise on the large Lebanese population that has put down roots in west Africa.
UTA had been denied a licence to register in Lebanon because it did not fulfil “technical requirements”, Lebanese Transport Minister Najib Mikati was quoted as saying by Lebanese state media.
Instead the owners, one of them among the passengers on Thursday’s flight, registered the 200-seat plane in Guinea, another small west African country.
Guinea’s transport minister Cellou Dalein Diallo, however, told journalists at Conakry airport that after “all the customary checks, nothing prevented the delivery of an airworthiness certificate”.
Meanwhile, in southern Lebanon’s Kharayeb village, families who had anticipated joyous re-unions were now planning funeral tributes.
“My brother called me from Cotonou, from the beach,” said village official Muhammad Ali Dor, who lost three cousins in the crash.
“He was sobbing and told me: ‘Come see the tatters of the children of Kharayeb floating on the water’.”