The cause of the accident, in what would be the world's third-worst air crash, and the worst ever mid-air collision, was still unknown. By late last night, rescue workers had found 275 bodies.
The Saudi jumbo, headed for Dharan and Jeddah, had taken off from New Delhi airport and was rising to 14,000 feet. At the same time, an Ilyushin Il-76 cargo plane from Kazakhstan was descending for a landing, at 15,000 feet, according to authorities at Indira Gandhi International Airport. Somehow, the two aircraft crashed head-on in the darkness.
Fires were still smouldering in the wreckage of the Saudi jet when I arrived in Charkhi Dadri, a few hours after the crash. The mid-air impact, coupled with the intense heat, had pulverised the plane. There was little left but charred pieces of metal the size of confetti, spread out over four acres of a dusty, ploughed field. Apart from a chunk of the tailfin, there was no recognisable piece of metal to tell that that the smouldering debris had once been a giant Boeing 747 airplane.
I found one shoe, a flattened Pepsi can and a Saudia airline magazine, as if a passenger had been enjoying a drink and leafing through the duty- free selection when the crash occurred and blown him or her into oblivion. Police said they felt death for passengers on both aeroplanes, at the moment of collision, must have been instantaneous.
Men with flickering torches, their faces covered in handkerchiefs to ward off the stench of burning flesh mixed with fuel, sifted through the wreckage for bodies. "We've found 60 corpses so far. None of them can be easily identified," a police sub-inspector, Mohar Lal, commented grimly.
There was an aimlessness to the search: the generators had broken down and the police were without light. They walked gingerly in the darkness, not knowing were to step for all the corpses. The only fire hose spurted a geyser of water from a great leak.
Medical officers carted off the bodies in large carts hitched up to tractors. From there, the victims were taken in army ambulances to New Delhi. The passengers on the Saudia flight were mainly Indian workers on their way to Saudi Arabia. For them, a flight to Saudi Arabia, where many of them hoped to find work, seemed like a ticket that would allow them to escape to a better life.
Mohan Lal, a farmer near Charkhi Dadri, 60 miles west of the Indian capital, had heard a loud crash in the clear evening sky and glanced up to see "three balls of fire dropping". He said: "The two planes crashed in the sky and then fell in flames, about six miles apart from each other. It was terrible. There were human body parts strewn everywhere, on the ground, in the trees."
Although the reason for the crash was not immediately obvious, it seems likely that it was the result of human error rather than technical faults with either aircraft. The immediate aftermath of the collision was witnessed by a US Air Force pilot awaiting clearance to land at Delhi. "In the distance off our right-hand side, two fireballs seemed to appear . . . diverging away from each other," the pilot said. "The two fireballs proceeded to descend and hit the ground and became fireballs on the ground."
The Indian Foreign Office said a British passenger was believed to have been on board the Saudi plane.
Another 16 foreigners were believed to have been on board - nine Nepalis, three Pakistanis, two Americans, a Bangladeshi, and a Saudi.
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