Mangalore: An Air India plane crashed in Mangalore, Karnataka on Saturday morning, killing 158 of the 166 passengers and crew on board, with eight of them managing to escape miraculously.
The Boeing 737-800 aircraft belonged to the national flag carrier’s budget fleet, the Air India Express, and was coming to Mangalore from Dubai. The AI Express flight 812 overshot the runway upon landing at the Bajpe airport here, went down a ravine and burst into flames in the worst air disaster in the country in a decade.
The two-and-a-half-year-old aircraft with an experienced Serbian pilot in command missed the touchdown area at the 8,000-feet `table top` runway (air strip on a hilly terrain) at Bajpe airport.
The Bajpe airport is considered one of the most difficult airports to land and take off from.
Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel, who flew to the crash site, told reporters that of the 166 persons on board four persons escaped with minor injuries while three sustained major injuries. One person also escaped unhurt, he said.
Police said all 158 charred bodies have been recovered after the crash which occurred at 6.30 am. A majority of the victims were Keralites.
The entire six-member crew including the two pilots perished in the accident. The
passengers comprised 105 men, 32 women, 19 children and four infants.
Patel said preliminary observation showed there was no problem with the four-year-old runway or the aircraft but the plane had overshot by about 2000 feet.
He said the plane overshot the touchdown area of runway and went into a cliff because spillover area was short.
One of the wings of the aircraft hit the concrete localiser instrument, a navigation aid, and fell in that area itself.
The localiser is located at the end of the spillover area, which is about 90 metres, Patel said, adding the aircraft plunged into a ravine 200 to 300 metres down but did not immediately catch fire.
The plane broke into two and smoke billowed from the main fuselage. The plane was almost completely burnt with only its tail visible.
The Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR), also known as the black box which could give vital clues to the cause of the crash, was yet to be recovered from the wreckage, Patel said.
An inquiry has been ordered by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) into the crash and an Air India team will assist it in the probe.
The team headed by Executive Director (Operations) will establish the circumstances, collect data and assist the DGCA inquiry.
Mangalore airport, which is in a hilly area, was shut down immediately after the mishap but reopened after about eight hours.
No distress signal
An Airport Authority of India (AAI) official said there was no distress call from the pilots, who were very experienced and familiar with the hilly terrain, when they got
clearance for landing the of Air India Express flight, about seven km away from touchdown.
The wind was calm, visibility at a comfortable six km and it was not raining at the time of the incident, the official said.
One of the survivors Umar Farooq said the aircraft experienced turbulence. One eyewitness said a tyre of the ill-fated plane had burst on landing.
Charred bodies, strewn luggage and mangled remains of the aircraft bore a grim testimony to the tragedy.
"The plane shook with vibrations before it split into two. As soon as it hit the ground, I managed to get out and jump into a pit. There was smoke all over as the plane caught
fire. After ten minutes, there was an explosion," said Pradeep, one of the seven survivors.
"I can`t believe I survived the crash," he said reliving the moments minutes before the aircraft went up in flames.
About 150 CISF personnel, airport officials and fire service personnel along with civilians and local police were quickly pressed into service to pull out any survivors out of the burning plane.
The commander Capt Zlatko Glusica (53) had 10,000 hours of flying experience and had made 16 previous landings at Bajpe airport, while the co-pilot H S Ahluwalia with 3,650
flying hours had previously landed here 66 times.
The two pilots last flew into Mangalore on May 17, an official said. Two air hostesses were among the four-member cabin crew.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who cancelled a dinner at his residence to celebrate the first anniversary of his government’s second tenure, condoled the loss of lives and ordered compensation of Rs 2 lakhs for the families of the dead and Rs 50,000 for the injured.
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.
The country`s worst aviation accident occurred in 1996 when two passenger planes collided in mid-air near New Delhi with the loss of all 349 on board both flights.
List of survivors: Putturismail Abdulla, Joel Pratap D`Souza, GK Pradeep, Krishnan Koolikkunnu, Mayankutty KP, Ummer Farook Mohammed and Sabrina Nasrinhuq.
(With PTI inputs)