RAWALPINDI: A small military plane went down in a populated area on the outskirts of Rawalpindi Tuesday morning, killing all five crew members on board and at least 13 people on the ground.
The aircraft – belonging to Pakistan Army Aviation – was on a routine training flight when it crashed in a 'built-up' area near Mora Kalu, the military's media wing, the ISPR, said in a statement.
According to Rawalpindi's Deputy Commissioner Muhammad Ali Randhawa, Mora Kalu is a part of Sihala area, which falls under the administrative jurisdiction of Islamabad Capital Territory.
The fuel tank of the aircraft exploded soon after the impact in the Kantrali village of Mora Kalu, setting off a fire that damaged five houses and reduced two shanties to ashes, according to witnesses.
Official sources said the aircraft took off from Army Aviation Base Qasim at 2am on Tuesday. And according to witnesses the plane circled over the area at a dangerously low altitude shortly before it came down.
The ISPR statement didn't specify the type of the aircraft, but the British Broadcasting Corporation claimed it was a Beechcraft King Air 350.
Rescuers said 18 people – eight men, four women and six children – are among the dead, while another eight people are injured.
The ISPR also confirmed the casualties. "Rescue teams of Pakistan Army and 1122 reached on site. [The] fire was extinguished and the injured were shifted to hospital," it added in the statement.
The military identified the martyred crewmembers as Lt Col Saqib (pilot), Lt Col Waseem (pilot), Naib Subedar Afzal, Havaldar Ibne Ameen, and Havaldar Rehmat.
Funeral prayers for the martyred crewmembers were offered later in the day at Chaklala garrison which was attended by army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, serving and retired military personnel, and relatives of the martyrs.
According to the Rescue 1122, four of the injured were treated at the site for their minor injuries, while eight were ferried to the Holy Family Hospital. All the bodies, however, were shifted to the Combined Military Hospital for identification.
"We have taken 18 bodies to the hospital… that included 13 civilians and five crew members," said Rescue 1122 spokesperson Farooq Butt. "All the bodies are badly burned, so DNA tests are required for identification," he added.
Deputy Commissioner Randhawa said the bodies of the civilian victims would be handed over to the heirs after identification. He added that a state of emergency had been declared in all hospitals of Rawalpindi.
Rescue 1122 District Officer Dr Abdur Rehman said that they had received the information about the crash at 2:01am and within six minutes they were at the site.
Deputy Commissioner Randhawa said the site was cleared after a five-hour-long operation in which more than 100 rescuers – including firefighters and ambulances – took part. He added that financial compensation would be announced for the families of the civilian victims.
Rawalpindi Corps Commander Lt Gen Bilal Akbar also visited the crash site to oversee the rescue operation. Military officials had cordoned the site while a crowd of residents stood nearby, some of them sobbing.
"I woke to the sound of a huge explosion. I stepped out of my house and saw huge flames and we rushed to the site," resident Mohammad Sadiq told AFP.
"People were screaming. We tried to help them but the flames were too high and the fire too intense," he said, adding he believed seven members of one family were among the dead.
Another resident Ghulam Khan said he heard the plane as it buzzed over his house, adding the aircraft appeared to be on fire before it crashed. "The sound was so scary," he added.
The civilian fatalities have been identified as Muhammad Jamil, his wife Robina, and son Habib; Parri Bibi, wife of Qalam din, her son Muhammad Shabir, and grand-daughter Fizia Bibi; Fatima Bibi, wife of Abdul Hameed, her daughters Uzma Bibi and Rahela Bibi, and sons Abdul Hafeez and Faizan; and Abdul Rauf, son of Shamsud din.
President Arif Alvi and Prime Minister Imran Khan expressed grief and sorrow over the lives lost in the aircraft crash. They condoled with the bereaved families and prayed for the early recovery of the injured.
Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly Shehbaz Sharif also offered condolences to the bereaved families.
Pakistan has a chequered aviation safety record, with frequent plane crashes over the years. However, crashes involving military aircraft are rare.
In 2016, a Pakistan International Airlines plane burst into flames after one of its two turboprop engines failed while travelling from Gilgit to Islamabad, killing more than 40 people.
The deadliest air disaster on Pakistani soil was in 2010, when an Airbus 321 operated by Airblue and flying from Karachi crashed into the hills outside Islamabad while coming in to land, killing all 152 on board.
(With additional input from Agencies)