Hunt goes on for black box in Airbus wreckage

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The Independent Online
THE BLACK box flight recorder which may hold the key to why the Pakistan International Airlines Airbus crashed in Kathmandu on Monday has still not been found, contrary to earlier reports.

Searchers mistook the cockpit voice recorder they found on the mountain, which records aircraft crew conversations, for the 'black box' flight data recorder which gives information on all aspects of the plane's functioning.

A group of 47 relatives and friends of the victims is due to arrive in Kathmandu today but local officials are concerned about the psychological effects they will experience from seeing the charred remains of crash victims.

The British Embassy will advise them against trying to take the bodies home. The airliner smashed into the mountain at over 250mph, exploding instantly, and all but three of the corpses are disfigured beyond recognition. A British diplomat said: 'We hope the relatives won't want to identify the bodies.'

The Nepalis are discouraging mourners from making a pilgrimage to the 8,250ft (2,524m) mountain Bhatti Danda, where the wreckage lies. Most of the fuselage disintegrated on impact, and the tail fin slid down the mountainside into a forest.

Even after two days of drizzle the wreckage still smoulders in the mist. The police, some dangling by ropes, are stretched in a line across the wreckage. They search among the debris for human remains. So far, police say they have uncovered 132 bodies from the crash scene but that is a well intended lie to cover the fact that the parts of individual bodies are not easily separated out. Each body is put in a plastic bag strung to a bamboo pole which two policemen then carry, staggering, down a steep, muddy path with faces covered by handkerchiefs against the smell.

Passengers included 36 Britons, 30 Spaniards, 14 Dutch, 14 other Europeans, 30 Nepalis, 11 Pakistanis, four Bangladeshis, three Americans, two Canadians, one Japanese, one New Zealander, two unknown and a crew of 19 Pakistanis, PIA said yesterday.

The airline has denied reports in Pakistani newspapers that the 15-year-old Airbus had experienced radar trouble before. The News quoted airline sources yesterday as saying the aircraft's weather radars had been malfunctioning since mid-August, quoting an unidentified pilot.

The problem had been reported several times by flight deck crews but the log book showed ground checks found the system was satisfactory, the newspaper said. The newspaper also suggested that according to the pilot, moisture had penetrated the radar cone causing it to malfunction. PIA said the reports were not 'based on facts'.

Another Pakistani newspaper, Dawn, said the pilot, Captain Iftikhar, was involved in a minor accident at Kathmandu a few months ago when all the tyres on his aircraft burst on landing. Mr Iftikhar landed very fast, forcing him to brake heavily thus blowing out the tyres, Dawn quoted a colleague as saying.

'He was probably trying to be over-cautious on Monday when he came in to land at a dangerously low altitude,' the newspaper quoted the pilot as saying.

The name of one more British victim was released yesterday. Cathy Statham, 25, from North Yorkshire, had recently qualified as a solicitor.