Mangalore (Karnataka), May 22 (Calcutta Tube) At least 158 people were killed Saturday when Air India Express flight 812 flying in from Dubai crashed while landing at Mangalore’s ‘table top’ airport surrounded by deep gorges and erupted in fire when it overshot the runway and plunged down a cliff.
Though it had been raining for two days, there was six-kilometre visibility with no wind when the Boeing 737, carrying 160 passengers including 19 children and four infants as well as six crew members attempted to land at 6.05 a.m., the civil aviation ministry said.
There was no distress call from the pilot, a British national of Serbian origin who had received due landing clearance about four miles from touchdown at the hilltop airport at Bajpe, about 20 km from here and 350 km from Karnataka’s capital Bangalore.
The aircraft, the ministry said, touched down the 2.45 km Runway 24 ‘slightly beyond the touch down zone, overshot the runway and went in the valley beyond the runway’.
The Bajpe airport is considered one of the most difficult airports to land and take off from.
Piecing together eyewitness accounts, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP Sadananda Gowda said the plane hit an instrument landing system and spun out of control before smashing into a ravine, breaking up and bursting into flames.
Only eight people, an infant included, survived. Some of the injured were in critical condition in Mangalore hospitals.
Most passengers were Indians, many returning home from Dubai where they worked.
Among the survivors was Umar Farooq who told relatives about his miraculous escape: ‘Soon after it touched the runway, I heard a sound and saw smoke quickly fill the plane… 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.’
Air India Director Anup Srivastava said in Mumbai that eight passengers were rescued from the burning wreckage.
Air India Express is the low cost arm of Air India.
According to Airports Authority of India chairperson V.P. Aggarwal: ‘The aircraft was in good shape and there was no problem with it. There was no operational deficiency at Mangalore airport.’
Nearby villagers were among the first to rush the accident site but billowing flames kept them away. Rescue personnel came across ghastly scenes of mangled bodies strewn over a large area. Some charred bodies still had the seat belts on.
As firemen doused the flames, personnel took out bodies from the wreckage — each body had to be taken up the cliff that dropped away from the runway.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who cancelled a dinner at his residence to celebrate the first anniversary of his government second tenure, condoled the loss of lives and ordered compensation of Rs.200,000 for the families of the dead and Rs.50,000 for the injured.
A host of ministers rushed to Mangalore, a busy commercial and education centre. While Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel managed to reach Mangalore – the airport was closed in the morning but opened later in the day – Karnataka Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa could not. He had to land midway at Hasan due to bad weather and went the rest of 110 km by car.
He said the operation to take out the bodies was likely to be over by the evening because of the difficult terrain.
And then maybe Mavis Corda will get to know the fate of her husband, Abu Dhabi based Shailesh Brahmavar Rao, who was on his way to attend his mother’s funeral.
‘I am just praying to hear some good news,’ Gulf News quoted the Abu Dhabi-based nurse as saying.
With many Malayalis on board, Kerala declared a two-day mourning.
This is the 11th major air accident involving Indian carriers or in the country’s air space since 1962, and the first since July 17, 2000 when an Alliance Air flight crashed at the Patna airport killing 60 people.