MANGLAORE: Investigators on Sunday sifted through the charred wreckage of an Indian passenger plane that overshot the runway and plunged into a ravine, killing 158 people on board.
The Air India Express Boeing 737-800, carrying 160 passengers and six crew on a flight from Dubai, careered off the “table-top” runway at Bajpe airport on Saturday and ploughed into a forested gorge, bursting into flames. Some of the eight people who survived the crash about 20 kilometres from the southwest coastal city of Mangalore told how they had escaped as the fuselage broke into pieces and filled with thick smoke.
Arvind Jadhav, chairman of Air India, said at a press briefing in Mangalore on Sunday that all 158 bodies had been recovered but that 12 remained unidentified. “I visited the hospitals and interacted with survivors. My heart goes out to those who died and who lost friends and relatives,” he said, declining to comment on whether the flight’s “black box” data recorder had been found. At the scene, officials from the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) spent the day searching for the recorder as well as cockpit voice tapes that should provide information on the cause of the tragedy. The probe into the crash resumed at first light on Sunday with the wreckage area cordoned off.
Immediately after the accident, crowds of local residents had streamed to the site to help rescue victims. “At times we dragged them by a hand or by the leg,” Mohammed Azim, one of the first people to reach the plane, told the CNN-IBN news channel. About 25 investigators used mechanical metal-cutters to start their examination of the plane’s remains, while hired labourers cleaned up debris scattered widely across the muddy slopes. US-based aircraft manufacturer Boeing said it was sending a team of investigators to India to help in the inquiry.
The few survivors of India’s worst aviation disaster in 14 years described hearing a loud thud shortly after touchdown. Officials said the landing conditions were fair with good visibility and reported there had been no distress call from the cockpit. Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel, who flew to the crash site, said on Saturday that eight passengers had survived. One survivor, Umer Farooq, spoke to reporters from his hospital bed where he was being treated for burns to his arms, legs and face. “The plane veered off toward some trees on the side and then the cabin filled with smoke,” he said.
“I got caught in some cables but managed to scramble out.” Television images from the immediate aftermath of the crash showed smoke billowing from the fuselage as emergency crews, who struggled down steep, wooded slopes to reach the aircraft, doused the fire with foam. “The preliminary observation is that the aircraft touched down and did not contain itself within the runway space,” minister Patel said. He described the chief pilot, a Serbian national, as a “very experienced” flier who had logged 10,000 hours of flying time.
Stressing that it was too early to determine the precise cause of the crash, Patel noted that the sanded safety area surrounding the runway in the event of an overshoot was shorter than at some airports. Air India Express is a budget airline operated as a subsidiary by the state-run carrier. Many of the passengers were Indian migrant workers returning from jobs in the Gulf to visit their families.
Published in the Express Tribune, May 24th, 2010.