Mangalore (Karnataka), May 22 (Calcutta Tube) The fiery crash of Air India Express flight 812 from Dubai early Saturday in a gorge at the end of a ‘hill top’ runway here turned the wreckage site into a valley of death, with charred bodies strewn all around the inhospitable terrain.
‘It is perhaps the first and worst air mishap I have seen in Mangalore. Words fail to express the magnitude of the tragedy, as so many people, especially women and children were burnt alive in minutes,’ C.N. Manjunath, a thasildar (local revenue official), one of the first eyewitnesses of the crash, told IANS from the wreckage site.
Though cyclone Laila brought relief to the people of this coastal city from sweltering heat and humidity, inclement weather and rains marred rescue and relief operations when the Boeing 737 with 166 people, including six crew, plunged into the gorge after overshooting the ‘table top’ runway while landing. As many as 159 people lost their lives in the tragedy.
Local people were caught unawares and shocked to learn that such a tragedy struck in the early hours of a weekend. As thousands of people from surrounding areas thronged the wreckage site, the fire brigade, the police and rescue teams had tough time in dousing the inferno and searching for survivors.
When news of the tragedy spread through local and national news channels, relatives and friends of the passengers who perished in the ill-fated plane, also rushed to the wreckage site.
‘We had to cordon off the ghastly site from all sides as pouring rain and chaotic movement of people were hampering rescue measures and delaying recovery of bodies. Fire brigade service had a tough time in reaching the site as it was not only inaccessible but also turned into a war ravaged terrain,’ Manjunath noted.
State information department official Anand Shetty, who was directed by the district deputy commissioner to go to the crash site at Kenja, for firsthand information, said that it was horrifying and numbing to witness the scale of death and destruction in a natural setting.
‘In such disasters, even a few minutes delay in mounting rescue efforts proves costly as evident from the high casualty from the fiery aircraft. It’s a miracle a handful of passengers, who were perhaps seated on the other side of the broken aircraft, jumped out alive,’ Shetty said.
Immigration officer K.N. Chandrashekar, who was on duty at that time, said the jet had indeed landed but skidded and overshot the runway and rolled over the cliff after crashing through the perimeter wall.
‘I was on morning duty and getting ready for the job with my team of assistants. Though the flight was to land on schedule at 6.30 a.m., we were informed about 10 minutes later that the aircraft crash-landed after overshooting the runway. We were shocked to learn from the ATC (air traffic control) that the plane caught fire and broke into two-three pieces due to the impact of the plunge and the terrain,’ Chandrashekar recalled.
Geeta and Kavita, the two assistants in the immigration wing section, who were also on duty at the airport, said utter chaos prevailed at the Bajpe airport terminal, as hundreds of people, mainly relatives and friends of the passengers of the ill-fated plane, besieged officials of Air-India, Airports Authority of India (AAI), police and anyone who could give some information about the fate of their dear and near ones.
‘Except the list of passengers onboard the aircraft, with their age and gender, we had no other details or information to give or share with their kith and kin. When news trickled that some of the passengers survived, hopes rose in some while others were shattered to hear later that many perished in the crash,’ Geeta told IANS.
At the state-run Wenlock Hospital in the city, where about 140 bodies charred beyond recognition recovered from the wreckage site were wheeled in by ambulances by sunset, emotions ran high with scores of relatives wailing, screaming and collapsing at the ghastly sight of their near and dears.
‘Of the 11 bodies that were recognizable, nine have been handed over to their kin after proper identification and verification of claimants, while many others are waiting in agony to identify the bodies of their loved ones,’ Manjunath said.