350 die as airliners collide

Fireballs over Indian town after worst-ever mid-air crash
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The Independent Online
Hundreds of charred bodies, many still burning, were strewn around a village west of New Delhi last night after a Saudi jumbo jet collided with a Kazak airliner in a massive explosion.

It was feared that 351 people had been killed in what would be the third- worst air crash ever and the worst mid-air collision.

The Indian Foreign Office said a British passenger was believed to have been aboard the Saudi plane. Another 16 foreigners were believed aboard - nine Nepalis, three Pakistanis, two Americans, a Bangladeshi, and a Saudi.

A report from Chandigarh, near the site of the disaster, said 200 charred bodies, including those of the pilots of the Saudi Boeing and one air hostess, had been found.

"About 200 bodies, most of them burning, were sighted at the spot, where relief and salvage operations were being hampered due to darkness," the Press Trust of India said.

Villagers near Charkhi Dadri, a town of 50,000 surrounded by flat farmland, said that the impact of the crash had created a 10ft-deep crater over an area of about 330 square feet at the site, about 50 miles south-west of New Delhi.

A building contractor Rao Singh witnessed the crash. "I saw fireballs and big black smoke about three or four kilometres from my house falling into the fields," he said. "The sky was absolutely red."

One aviation source described the aftermath of the collision as "like a bolt of lightning - two streaks of fire descended down to the ground". Another witness said: "I saw a ball of flame hurtling down and I could make out that it was an aircraft." Police cordoned off the area as rescue vehicles went to the site.

Ranjan Chatterjee, chairman of the Airports Authority of India, told a news conference: "We have not heard of any survivors so far. It seems rather difficult, unfortunately." The PTI reported that three survivors were pulled from the wreckage but they had all died on the way to hospital.

The collision between the 747 and the Kazak plane took place after nightfall. Saudi Airways flight SV763 took off from new Delhi's Indira Gandhi International Airport at 6.33pm, bound for Dahran and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. It had 312 passengers and crew on board. The plane was cleared to climb to 14,000ft. Seven minutes after take-off, it collided with the Kazak aircraft, flight KZA1907 from Shymkent, which was making its landing approach. The Kazak airliner had 39 people on board, said officials.

HS Khola, India's director general of civil aviation, said: "At about 18:40 [1340 GMT], the radar blip of both aircraft was lost."

Indian reports at first said the Kazak flight was a Tupolev-154, but officials in Kazakstan said the flight of the same number was usually an Ilyushin-76 cargo plane.

The weather in Delhi was normal for the time of year, and there was no immediate word on the cause of the collision. The Indian government ordered a judicial inquiry.

A Boeing spokesman in Everett, Washington, Doug Webb, said the 747-100 had been delivered to Saudi Airways in 1982. It was configured to carry 377 passengers. Mr Webb said he had no information on the plane's service record, whether it was equipped with crash-avoidance device or what may have caused the collision.

Until Friday's crash, the third-deadliest crash was the 1974 accident outside Paris involving a Turkish DC-10 which killed 346 people.

The Saudi airline's last disaster was in August 1990 when a Lockheed TriStar caught fire at Riyadh airport shortly before take-off. All 301 people aboard were killed.

Until yesterday's collision, India had been regarded as having good air- traffic-control systems.

"Pilots have been reasonably happy with conditions in India," said Tony Myers, administration and finance officer of the Surrey-based International Federation of Airline Pilots. "We have had no particular complaints about the area." There were areas where pilots were deeply concerned about safety, but India was not one of them, said Chris Darke, general secretary of the British Airline Pilots' Association.

Further reports, page 9