Kathmandu: As soldiers of the Nepal Army aided by police began to hunt for mangled and badly burnt bodies in a village Tuesday after a private aircraft exploded mid-air, killing all 14 people on board, including six foreign tourists, the government ordered a probe into the accident.
The Hindu festival of raksha bandhan, when sisters pray for the long life of their brothers, turned into a stark tragedy when a 15-seater Dornier aircraft flown by domestic carrier Agni Air towards the Everest region in northern Nepal with 11 passengers, including four American women, went off the radar to plummet minutes later in Shikharpur, a remote village in Makwanpur district adjacent to Kathmandu valley.
Gyan Kumar Thakur, an eyewitness of the crash that occurred around 8 a.m., said there was a loud explosion before the aircraft nosedived and the wreckage began burning. The bodies and belongings of the passengers were thrown out.
"The site is difficult to reach due to last night’s incessant rain," Thakur told private television station ABC.
"Villagers were guarding the broken bodies as rescue teams were held up by bad weather and fog. Passports and other papers were found scattered along with plane parts."
The 11 passengers included six foreigners, four of whom were American, and five Nepalis. The two foreign men have been preliminarily identified as Japanese national Y. Hayashi and British national Jeremy Taylor. The four American women were Levzi Cardoso, Heather Finch, K. Fallon and Irina Shekhets.
The American embassy in Kathmandu said it had informed their next of kin and was ready to assist the government of Nepal in any way possible.
The three crew members have been identified as Captain Laxman Prasad Vikram Shaha, co-pilot Sophia Singh and air hostess Sara Sherpa. The Nepali passengers who died in the crash are N.L. Sherpa, Ishwar Rizal, K. Rai, P. Bhote and Prakash Amagain.
Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal officials said a five-member inquiry committee has been constituted to investigate the crash. The committee has been asked to submit its findings in 65 days.
The aircraft was headed for Lukla in northern Nepal, considered the gateway to Mt. Everest. However, the pilot complained of engine and other equipment failure.
Unable to land in Lukla due to bad weather, he was trying to seek a safe landing place in southern Nepal when the aircraft crashed in Makwanpur district, close to Kathmandu valley.
Despite the closeness to the capital, lack of motorable roads and inclement weather prevented rescue teams, including an army helicopter carrying doctors, from reaching the crash site for hours.
When they finally reached the village, there were no survivors. The team has begun collecting the bodies, most of which are badly mangled and burnt.
This is the third major air disaster suffered by Nepal in four years. Bad weather, pilot error, difficult terrain, bad local airports and technical failures are held to be the main causes. Most of the crashes occur in monsoon.
In 2006, a domestic airline crashed in eastern Nepal, killing 24 people, including 12 German tourists, a Nepali minister and his wife and noted conservationists. In 2008, 18 people died in a crash in the Everest region. The victims included 12 Germans.
The crash comes at a time when Nepal is celebrating the entry of a Nepali airline to Bhutan, the first international airline to start flights to the Buddhist kingdom. It also clouds efforts to celebrate 2011 as tourism year targeted to bring in one million tourists.