In the raging and treacherous skies over the capital, tragedy struck once again.
A passenger flight travelling from Karachi to Islamabad carrying 121 passengers and six crew members came hurtling down towards the outskirts of Rawalpindi at 6:46pm on Friday evening.
Among the passengers were five infants and six children.
There were no survivors.
Bhoja Air’s aged B737-200 took off from Karachi airport at 5:05pm and crashed five nautical miles from Islamabad airport on the village of Hussainabad. However, rescuers said people on the ground remained largely safe as the bulk of the wreckage fell in an open area.
The crash took place a few miles from the tragedy of Airblue flight 202, in which over 150 people lost their lives less than two years ago. That flight, too, was travelling from Karachi to Islamabad.
The site of the crash was gut-wrenching, even for those with the strongest of stomachs.
Rescue and city administration officials said no body recovered was intact – except for three children who were charred beyond recognition. The bodies had been scattered over a one kilometre radius.
“There were terrible scenes when we moved into the houses to recover bodies… I can’t explain in words what I have seen,” said Rescue 1122 official Fida Muhammad, on the verge of tears.
Heavy rain, mud and a power outage complicated the rescue and search operation that continued amidst a sharp smell of jet fuel and charred human flesh till the filing of this report.
“There were body parts scattered in the radius of over a kilometer which were collected and gathered at a place,” said an official of Rescue 1122 Rawalpindi who was among the first few rescuers to reach the site, which was eventually cordoned off by the military.
Some eyewitnesses said they saw a fireball heading downwards and hitting the ground with a bang. Some bigger parts of the wreckage entangled with high voltage power lines and caught fire – plunging the area into darkness.
But no amount of darkness could veil the horrors at the site.
“Most were in pieces. It was terrible. I cried after seeing dead children and women,” said a villager Raja Bashir, aged 56.
“The plane must have burst into pieces while in air as some of the wreckage fell on the roofs of houses in the village,” said another rescue official.
Despite some reports of eyewitnesses that the aircraft exploded in the air, it is yet to be corroborated by officials.
It is still unclear what caused the crash. The black box which carries key data regarding the flight operation has been retrieved from the wreckage.
Officials at the airport said the plane was scheduled to land at Benazir Bhutto International Airport at 6:45pm. The captain established his last contact with the control tower at 6:20pm and went silent subsequently, said an official of CAA.
He claimed that the plane crashed minutes before its scheduled landing time, adding that it was premature to determine what caused the accident.
Other officials’ initial speculation was that the cloudy skies and adverse weather conditions were to blame.
A high-level committee headed by Captain (retd) Mujahidul Islam, head of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA)’s Safety Investigation Board, has been formed on the directives of Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani to look into the circumstances leading to the incident. Officials said that some of the members of the committee had already visited the site and collected evidence.
Defence Minister Ahmed Mukhtar said the committee had been directed to complete the investigations at the earliest.
The minister, in his initial response to the incident, pointed out that bad weather could be a reason for the crash. Rain and windstorm was lashing parts of the capital around the time of crash.
However, no one will be holding their breath, despite promises of an inquiry by the Ministry of Defence and the CAA. After all, the inquiry into the AirBlue crash is yet to provide any answers.
CAA has given no time for releasing the preliminary investigation report. In all the aircraft accidents since 2006, the investigators have found either the pilots or weather responsible.
CAA’s rescue service staff was sent to the accident site soon after the crash, said Pervez George, the CAA spokesman. “I can’t say anything about the causalities at this moment.”
National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) Chairman Dr Zafar Qadir established monitoring cells at NDMA offices and dispatched the authority’s medical team on the site of crash.
The chairman said that NDMA will help conduct DNA tests of passengers.
Over 50 bodies had already been shifted to the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (Pims) hospital, said the Deputy Commissioner Islamabad Amir Ali Ahmad.
Around 15 bodies had been identified through facial recognition and with the help of NADRA-Pims officials. The process of handing over bodies to relatives has begun.
Bhoja Air said in a statement on its website that it “wishes to extend its profound condolences to the families and friends” of the passengers. The name of Farooq Bhoja, the owner of the airline, has been put on the Exit Control List, said Interior Minister Rehman Malik, speaking to reporters at Pims.
(WITH ADDITIONAL INPUT FROM KAMRAN YOUSAF & QAMAR ZAMAN)
Published in The Express Tribune, April 21st, 2012.