Mangalore (Karnataka), May 22 (Calcutta Tube) At least 159 people were killed when a packed to capacity Air India Express flight from Dubai crashed Saturday while landing at Mangalore’s ‘table top’ airport, breaking into pieces and falling into a deep gorge in balls of fire. Only seven passengers survived in what is one of India’s worst aviation disasters.
Though it had been raining for two days, there was clear visibility with no wind when the Boeing 737-800 with 160 passengers, including 19 children and four infants, as well as six crew members overshot the runway at 6.05 a.m., authorities and witnesses said.
There was no distress call from pilot Z. Glusica, a British national of Serbian origin who had flown in and out of Mangalore at least 19 times and received due landing clearance four miles from touchdown at the hilltop airport at Bajpe, about 20 km from here and 350 km from Bangalore.
The Bajpe airport, which is surrounded by forested deep ravines, is considered one of the most difficult airports to land and take off because it lacks adequate spillover area.
Indian Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel said after visiting the crash site that the IX812 ploughed through a wall of sandbags and veered off course. As it did so, one of its wings crashed into the concrete landing aid, broke up and plunged about 200-300 metres into the gorge.
Stitching together the events by talking to four of the seven survivors, most of whom were seated in the middle of the plane, Patel told reporters that the Boeing did not immediately catch fire but did so subsequently.
Most passengers died instantly.
By 5 p.m., the bodies of 146 people, most of them charred beyond recognition and some with seat belts still strapped on, were recovered, Civil Aviation Secretary M.M. Nambiar said. A court of inquiry is to be set up and Boeing has said it will assist the investigation.
The aircraft, the civil aviation 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’.
Eight people, including an infant, were the initial survivors. However, a four-year-old girl died on the way to hospital, where some of the injured remained in critical condition.
All passengers were Indians, many returning home from Dubai where they worked. An estimated 50 were from Kerala, whose northern border almost touches Mangalore.
Among those who survived was Keralite Krishnan, who had a miraculous escape when he jumped through a gap in the broken aircraft just before it turned into a ball of fire.
‘I saw the plane catch fire and heard the shrieks of my co-passengers inside,’ said Krishnan, recalling how the aircraft shook as it lost one of its tyres after the landing.
He said he removed the seat belt and sprang out through the gap. ‘I felt I was in a forest. Four others also jumped out and ran with me,’ he said, narrating his horror story from his hospital bed.
Air India Express is the low cost arm of Air India. The Airports Authority of India said the plane was in good shape.
Addressing sceptics, Minister Patel said the length of the runway had been increased from 6,000 ft to 8,000 ft to factor in bigger aircraft. ‘(But) because spillway area was limited, it went into a cliff.’
Villagers were amongst the first to reach the site but leaping flames kept them away. Rescue personnel came across ghastly scenes of mangled bodies strewn over a large area.
As firemen doused the fires, others took out bodies from the wreckage — each body had to be taken up the cliff.
A shaken Prime Minister Manmohan Singh cancelled a dinner to celebrate the first anniversary of his government’s second tenure and condoled the loss of lives.
Two Dubai residents, a man and a woman, had a providential escape. While Kunhikannan Chandu could not get on to the flight because his boss piled on extra work, Theresiamma Philip was confused about the time and missed the flight.
They couldn’t believe their luck.
But many others like Manirekha Poonja, who worked for the Gulf News in Dubai, her husband and their 17-year-old daughter, who were to take part in a wedding in Mangalore, were not so fortunate.
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.