'I had time to think I was going to die': Survivors tell of Indian airliner's last minutes

KATHLEEN GREIG had plenty of time to think about death in the four minutes that Indian Airlines Flight IC 491 was in the air. From her window seat in the sixth row, the 57-year-old Scot watched in horror as the Boeing 737, loaded with 118 passengers and crew, lurched off the runway at Aurangabad airport, careened into a powerline, bowled over a lorry passing on a highway, broke into pieces as it skidded across a field, and caught fire.

'It was pitch-black from the smoke. The only door that opened was beside the cockpit, and the people behind the eighth row were stuck,' said Mrs Greig, from Brunton village, near Fife. 'Oh yes, I had lots of time to think that I was going to die.' Fifty-two passengers on the Bombay-bound flight died, most of them burnt to death. But Mrs Greig, and her Australian husband, Colin, 60, escaped with minor rib injuries.

'There was no announcement to ready us for the crash,' said Mr Greig, an engineer working on an aid project in Aurangabad. 'We felt a big bump and then we skidded. There were sheets of flame and black smoke that spread as we landed.' The crash was at 1.30pm, on a Bombay-Delhi 'hopping' flight with many stops that is popular with tourists visiting desert palaces in Rajasthan and Buddhist cliff caves near Aurangabad.

'It was totally dark, and there was this seething mass of humanity in the passageway. I grabbed my wife's hand and dragged her to the door, in front. We jumped from the plane and hurried over a rough field as far from the plane as we could,' said Mr Greig. He and his wife had embarked on the first leg of their journey for home leave in Britain to visit their son, Donald, and daughter, Isla.

The pilot and co-pilot, who are among the survivors, are to be arrested for negligent flying on release from hospital. Aviation authorities are investigating the cause of the crash. The aircraft had been in service for 19 years and had made more than 50,556 landings.

One daily newspaper, the Pioneer, claimed that pilots flying the aged Boeing 737s, with JT-9A engines, are warned that the engines are sometimes susceptible to 'under-performing' in extreme weather conditions.

The temperature on the Aurangabad tarmac at the time of the crash was more than 107F (41C). Yesterday civil aviation authorities grounded four Indian Airlines Boeing 737s, all more than 20 years old, until investigators from the US plane manufacturer can find the cause of the Aurangabad crash. The domestic carrier has only 23 aircraft to cover this vast country, and the loss of the Boeings will cripple air services.

Indian Airlines over the past few years has been plagued by pilot strikes, hijacking and crashes. Its safety record is one of the poorest among major carriers. It has had 19 disasters over the past 20 years, with a loss of more than 813 lives. In the next few days, though, the Greigs will board another Indian Airlines Flight IC 491 to continue their trip to Britain.

(Photograph omitted)

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