An Air India Express plane trying to land in the rain at a tricky hilltop airport in southern India overshot the runway, crashed and burst into flames at dawn today, killing nearly 160 people, officials said. At least eight survived.
Dense black smoke billowed from the Boeing 737-800 aircraft surrounded by flames just outside Mangalore's Bajpe airport in a hilly area with thick grass and trees.
Firefighters sprayed water on the plane — which was traveling from Dubai — as others struggled to find survivors. An Associated Press photo showed two rescuers running up a hill carrying a girl who was about 7 years old and covered in foam to waiting medics. The child was later treated for severe burns in a Mangalore hospital.
Other rescue workers pulled out 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 still strapped into their seats, their bodies burned beyond recognition.
Relatives of the victims, who had come to the airport to meet them, were seen weeping near the wreckage.
"The plane shook with vibrations and split into two," a survivor named Pradeep told CNN-IBN television. He said the plane's initial touchdown appeared smooth at first, but trouble started about 15 seconds later.
Pradeep, who uses only one name, 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, said Pradeep, who injured his hand and suffered burns to his feet.
The plane was carrying 160 passengers and six crew members, Air India official Jitender Bhargava said.
"This is a major calamity," V.S. Acharya, home minister for the state of Karnataka, told CNN-IBN.
By Saturday afternoon, rescuers had pulled 80 bodies from the wreckage, Bhargava said. Eight survivors also had been rescued and were being treated in local hospitals, said Anup Srivastava, another official with the financially struggling Indian national carrier.
Air India runs cheap flights under the Air India Express banner to Dubai and other Persian Gulf destinations where millions of Indian expatriate workers are employed.
The crash could be the deadliest in India since the November 1996 midair collision between a Saudi airliner and a Kazakh cargo plane near New Delhi that killed 349 people.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed condolences and promised compensation for the families of the victims. Boeing said in a statement it was sending a team to provide technical aid to the government's crash investigation.
The crash took place about 6 a.m. when the plane tried to land at Bajpe, about 19 miles outside of Mangalore, and overshot the runway, Bhargava said.
Scores of villagers scrambled over the hilly terrain to reach the wreckage, and began aiding in the rescue operation. Pre-monsoon rains over the past two days caused low visibility in the area, officials said.
Abdul Puttur, a survivor, told CNN-IBN he jumped out of the wrecked plane and then pulled out two other passengers.
At Dubai International Airport, a special room was set up to assist relatives and friends of the Mangalore passengers at Terminal 2, a hub for many budget and small airlines. Some people came to the airport looking for information and were later referred to Air India's main office in Dubai, said Rasha Mansour, an airport spokeswoman.
The Mangalore airport's location, on a plateau surrounded by hills, made it difficult for the firefighters to reach the scene of the crash, officials said. Aviation experts said Bajpe's "tabletop" 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 who uses one name.
Asif, a longtime air traffic controller, said Air India has traditionally insisted that only pilots with more than 1,000 hours logged in the air be allowed to fly into tabletop runways.
"However, in recent years, Air India has hired a number pilots from abroad," he said. "Such expat pilots may not be very familiar with the terrain."
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 300 meter (yard)-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 highways can stop trucks when their brakes fail.
Crash investigators will likely 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 $173 million (£120m) cash infusion for the airline, which as suffered decades of mismanagement and underinvestment.
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