Mangalore (Karnataka), May 22 (Calcutta Tube) At least 158 people were killed Saturday morning when an Air India Express Boeing 737 with 166 passengers and crew flying from Dubai overshot the runway while landing at the Mangalore airport and turned into a ball of fire as it crashed into a forested ravine, authorities and witnesses said.
The aircraft was coming down in clear visibility around 6 a.m. when the Serbian pilot overshot the runway at Bajpe, some 30 km from Mangalore, and desperately tried to take off, member of parliament Sadananda Gowda said. But the plane hit a radar pole and spun out of control.
In no time, it smashed into the ravine almost a kilometre away amid a deafening roar, breaking into pieces. Only eight people, an infant included, miraculously survived the disaster as they crawled out of the burning broken parts of the Boeing. Some of the injured are stated to be critical.
Air India Director Anup Srivastava announced in Mumbai that the plane was carrying 160 passengers, including four infants, and six crew members.
Air India Express is the low cost arm of Air India.
A grim looking Karnataka Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa had said earlier that ‘survivors were unlikely’. ‘Except for half a dozen people who were rescued, the rest may not have survived.’ he said in Bangalore, the state capital, before leaving for the crash site. ‘It is a grave tragedy.’
Most passengers were Indians, many returning home from Dubai where they worked.
Survivor Ummar Farooq said the plane seemed to be on course for landing.
‘Soon after it touched the runway, I heard a sound and saw smoke quickly fill the plane. Soon there was fire and all hell broke loose,’ he said.
‘A crack appeared on the plane’s body where I was seated. I immediately jumped out. Two or three people seated behind me also jumped out. I am hurt in my knees and suffered burns on my hands and face. As I fled from the aircraft, flames engulfed it,’ he said.
The airport at Bajpe is in a hilly area and considered one of the most difficult airports to land and take off from. The area had been experiencing heavy rains for the last two days.
There was no immediate official word, however, why the the accident occurred. Air India’s Srivastava said only an investigation would dig out the truth but most accounts blamed the pilot, identified as F. Glusica.
The pilot gave no distress signal before the crash, Mangalore airport officials said.
Villagers from the neighbourhood were among the first to rush to the accident site but the huge flames leaping into the sky kept them away.
Firemen and police personnel from the airport quickly began rescue operations, only to come across ghastly scenes of mangled bodies strewn over a large area. Some charred bodies still had the seat belts on.
About 25 ambulances and over 20 fire tenders were involved in the operation that lasted about four hours. Large crowds gathered at the site, many rushing all the way from the airport where they had been waiting for the plane’s arrival.
As firemen doused the flames, policemen began taking out bodies from the wreckage, many burnt beyond recognition. Each body had to be taken up the ravine by hand before being transferred to ambulances.
One of the passengers escaped with injuries on his knee and a minor fracture of the spine and was warded at the Kasturba Medical College Hospital in Mangalore. ‘He is stable, he has been shifted to the ward, and he is with the family,’ doctor Vir Singh said. ‘We also got patients brought dead, totally charred.’
The rescue operations were hit for an hour as a drizzle turned into heavy rains. ‘It is a tragic incident,’ Karnataka Home Minister V.S. Acharya said.
The Mangalore airport manager Peter Abrahim said there were initial difficulties in reaching the accident.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh condoled the loss of lives in the air crash at the Mangalore airport Saturday and ordered compensation of Rs.200,000 for the families of the dead and Rs.50,000 for the injured.
He also postponed an event scheduled at his official residence Saturday evening to celebrate his government’s one year in office during its second tenure.