ABBOTTABAD: “Unfortunately, we have no survivors,” said the PIA chairman in sombre voice hours after a passenger plane of the national airline with 48 people on board crashed in a mountainous region and burst into flames Wednesday afternoon.
Popular singer-turned-evangelist Junaid Jamshed, two Austrians, and a Chinese national were also on the PIA flight PK-661, which came down in the hills of Gagan, in Batolni village, some seven kilometres away from Havelian city, at around 4pm.
According to the airline, the plane was an ATR-42 turboprop aircraft, which lost contact with the Air Traffic Control (ATC) at Islamabad’s Benazir International Airport en route from Chitral.
PIA Chairman Azam Saigol blamed engine failure for the deadly crash. “Around 4:15pm the ATC received an emergency call from the pilot who informed them about the engine failure. A few minutes later, a mayday distress call was received from the pilot,” Saigol told journalists at a news conference. “At 4:20pm we received news of the crash.”
The ATR-42 aircraft involved in the crash had undergone regular maintenance, including an “A-check” certification in October, airline chairman Muhammad Azam Saigol said. “I want to make it clear that it was a perfectly sound aircraft,” Saigol said, ruling out technical or human error. The aircraft appeared to have suffered a failure in one of its two turboprop engines just before the crash, he said, but this would have to be confirmed by an investigation.
“I think there was no technical error or human error,” he told a news conference late on Wednesday. “Obviously there will be a proper investigation.”
At the crash site high in the mountains, rescue workers from army, police and Rescue 1122 pulled out more than 36 bodies from the smouldering wreckage and carried them to the ambulances parked at a walking distance of 30 minutes in the foot of the hill.
Local police official Ilyas Abbasi said the site was more than four kilometres away from Havelian city over hilly terrain and had to be reached on foot. Villagers collected body parts in shawls and on charpoys, while police and rescuers searched the site with torches.
Iftikhar Khan, a member of the Havelian Tehsil Council, was among the villagers who trekked the 45-minute perilous terrain to reach the crash site. “The bodies were charred and beyond recognition,” Khan said, adding that it took the rescuers around two hours to douse the blaze.
Crew of the flight PK-661, which crashed on Wednesday. PHOTO: INP
“The charred remains of only 36 passengers could be found which were subsequently shifted to Ayub Medical Complex in Abbottabad city,” he said.
Villager Qais Khan said the plane’s fuselage had broken into three parts after hitting the hill. The thud was heard within a radius of several kilometres, he added. “The fuselage was burning with bodies inside, while the cockpit of the plane didn’t catch fire.”
Local villagers, including women and children, attempted to put out the blaze but couldn’t. Later, a Havelian police team, led by DSP Khursheed Tanoli, reached the site and extinguished the fire with the help of tree branches and earth.
In the meantime, military helicopters dropped army rescuers who, with the aid of Rescue 1122 and villagers, launched the search for bodies in the pitched darkness. The search was still under way when this report was filed.
DNA tests are to be carried out at the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences in Islamabad for the identification of the victims, according to Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) Secretary Irfan Ellahi.
The same ATR-42 turboprop aircraft had flown 45 passengers from Islamabad airport to Chitral at 11:00am on Wednesday, airport sources told The Express Tribune.
Ellahi said the CAA’s investigation board, headed by Air Commodore Munir, would lead the inquiry into the causes of the deadly crash. “We hope the black box will be found soon which can help investigators,” he added.
The PIA chairman said it was too early to say whether a technical fault or human error caused the tragic crash. “A high-level investigation involving international agencies will be carried out to determine the actual cause of the crash,” he added.
Technically, the 2007-built aircraft had received its certification in October from the CAA’s technical team. “It was one of the 11 ATRs the CAA has. The aircraft was perfect from all aspects and was reliable to fly as no technical fault was detected during its technical examination which was carried out 60 days back,” he said.
The plane’s pilot, Captain Ahmed Mansoor Janjua, had 12,000 hours of flying experience. He also served as the flying instructor on ATRs. “Families of all the victims will be paid financial compensation according to the law,” the PIA chairman said.
Pakistan’s most recent air disasters involved helicopters, both in 2015.
In May that year a military helicopter crashed in a remote northern valley, killing eight people including the Norwegian, Philippine and Indonesian envoys and the wives of the Malaysian and Indonesian envoys. In August 2015, another army helicopter crashed, killing 12 people, all military personnel.
The country’s deadliest air disaster on home soil was in 2010, when an Airbus 321 operated by private carrier Airblue and flying from Karachi crashed into the Margalla Hills while about to land, killing all 152 on board.
Eighteen years earlier in 1992, PIA suffered its worst disaster overseas when an Airbus A300 crashed into a cloud-covered hillside on approach to the Nepalese capital Kathmandu after the plane descended too early, killing 167 people.
Despite this, PIA has been crash free for 10 years, and received a 7 out of 7 rating on the highly-cited AirlineRatings.com, which launched its annual listing in 2013.
But a 2014 analysis by US statistician Nate Silver based on data from 1985 – 2014, showed that the airline had a consistently high number of ‘near-misses’ — an indicator of risk.
Most of the carrier’s fleet apart from its latest Boeing 777s were also barred from flying to the European Union between March and November 2007. (With additional reporting by Sehrish Wasif and Mudassir Raja in Rawalpindi and input from AFP)
Published in The Express Tribune, December 8th, 2016.