159 die as jet overshoots runway in India

Handful of passengers survive by leaping from plane as it plunges from hilltop airport into forest

An Air India Express plane trying to land in the rain at a tricky airport on top of a hill in southern India overshot the table-top runway, crashed into the forest below, and burst into flames at dawn yesterday, killing 159 people. There were seven survivors.

Dense black smoke billowed from the wreckage of the flaming Boeing 737-800 aircraft in a hilly area with thick grass and trees just outside Mangalore's Bajpe airport. Firefighters sprayed water and foam on the plane – which was two years old and travelling from Dubai – as others struggled to find survivors. Two rescuers were seen running up a hill carrying a young girl covered in foam to waiting medics. The child's fate was not immediately known.

Workers pulled scores of burned bodies from the blackened tangle of aircraft cables, twisted metal, charred trees and mud at the crash site. Many of the dead were strapped into their seats, their bodies burned beyond recognition. Relatives of the victims, who had come to the airport to meet them, stood near the wreckage weeping.

Ummer Farook Mohammed, a survivor who had suffered burns on his face and hands, said it felt as if a tyre had burst after the plane landed. "There was a loud bang, and the plane caught fire," he said. Another survivor, G K Pradeep, told CNN-IBN television: "The plane shook with vibrations and split into two." He jumped out of the aircraft with four others into a pit, he said. The plane had a small fire at first, but then a large explosion set off a bigger blaze, he added.

The plane was carrying 160 passengers – all Indian – and six crew members, said an Air India official, Anup Srivastava. The British pilot and Indian co-pilot were killed. By Saturday afternoon, rescuers had pulled 127 bodies from the wreckage. Seven survivors had been rescued and were being treated in local hospitals.

The crash took place about 6am when the plane tried to land at Bajpe, about 19 miles outside Mangalore, and overshot the runway, said Jitender Bhargava, another official with the financially struggling Indian national carrier. Scores of villagers scrambled over the hilly terrain to reach the wreckage, and began aiding the rescue operation. Pre-monsoon rains over the past two days caused low visibility in the area.

At Dubai International Airport, a special room was set up to assist relatives and friends of the passengers at Terminal 2, a hub for many budget and small airlines. The Mangalore airport's location, on a plateau surrounded by hills, made it difficult for firefighters to reach the scene of the crash. Aviation experts said Bajpe's "table-top" runway, which ends in a valley, makes a bad crash inevitable when a plane does not stop in time. "If the pilot overshoots the runway, the aircraft will be in trouble," said Asif, an aviation expert.

India's external affairs minister, S M Krishna, said the Mangalore runway had a reputation for being difficult. "Our worst fears have come true," he told the Press Trust of India. Accidents of this type, known as "runway excursions", are fairly common, though the majority end without injury or damage. The International Civil Aviation Organization and pilots' groups have urged airports worldwide to construct 1,000ft-long safety extensions at the end of each runway for extra protection.

Older airports in built-up areas or those in tight locations with little room for extensions are advised to install soft ground layers – known as arrestor beds – to slow planes, much as escape ramps on motorways can stop lorries when their brakes fail.

Crash investigators will probably look into aquaplaning as a contributing factor in the crash because of the rain. The crash came as the national carrier tries to weather serious financial difficulties. In February, the government approved a $173m cash infusion for the airline, which has suffered decades of mismanagement and underinvestment. India's Home Minister, Palaniappan Chidambaram, said the plane's pilot, a British citizen reportedly of Serbian birth, had more than 10,000 hours of flying experience, including 26 landings at Mangalore. The Indian co-pilot had more than 3,750 hours of experience and 66 landings at Mangalore.

Air India runs cheap flights under the Air India Express banner to Dubai and other Middle Eastern destinations where millions of Indian expatriate workers are employed. The crash was the deadliest in India since the November 1996 midair collision between a Saudi airliner and a Kazakh cargo plane near New Delhi, which killed 349 people.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed condolences and promised compensation for the families of the victims. Boeing said it was sending a team to aid in the investigation.

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