Fierce rain and winds lashed a plane carrying 190 people before it crash-landed and tore in two at an airport in southern India, killing at least 18 people and injuring scores more, officials said Saturday.
The Air India Express Boeing 737, on a special flight from Dubai to bring back Indians stranded overseas by the coronavirus pandemic, overshot the runway at Kozhikode in Kerala state late Friday, plunged down an embankment and broke up, according to first accounts.
“Fuel had leaked out so it was a miracle that the plane did not catch fire, the toll could have been much higher,” one senior emergency official at the scene said.
Passenger Renjith Panangad, 34, recalled the plane touching the ground and then everything went “blank”.
“After the crash, the emergency door opened and I dragged myself out somehow,” he told AFP from a hospital bed in Kozhikode.
“The front part of the plane was gone – it was completely gone. I don’t know how I made it but I’m grateful. I am still shaken.”
Aviation minister Hardeep Singh Puri said the death toll had risen during the night to 18.
The fatalities included the two pilots as well as infants aged 10 months and 18 months, according to a hospital list seen by AFP. At least 15 people suffered critical injuries, doctors said.
Kozhikode is considered a tricky airport as it has a table-top runway with a steep drop at one end.
Kerala has been hit by severe floods in recent days and heavy rains had been falling for several hours at Kozhikode as the jet landed.
‘Broke in two’
Indian media quoted air traffic control officials and a flight tracker website as showing that the Boeing 737 twice circled and started to land before it crashed at the third attempt.
The jet repeatedly jumped up and down in buffeting winds before the landing, survivors told Indian television.
The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) said only that the jet kept going to the end of the runway in the heavy rain and “fell down the ravine and broke in two”.
Local taxi drivers and traders joined airport rescue staff to help free people from the wreckage in the dark and wet.
Several people on board had to be cut out with special equipment. It took three hours to clear all the injured and bodies, officials said.
Taxis ferried many of the injured to hospitals.
“Locals rushed to the spot after hearing the noise,” one rescue worker said. “People came in cars, messages were being sent on WhatsApp… that people were needed to help.
“At first, people took the injured to the hospitals in their cars. Then the emergency services took over.”
One of the infants died in a car before the child could receive treatment.
Stranded by virus
The flight was one of hundreds in recent months to bring home tens of thousands of Indians stranded abroad by the coronavirus pandemic, many of them in Gulf countries.
According to flight documents seen by AFP, 15 of those on board had lost their jobs and 12 were returning for a medical emergency. Two were coming back to be married.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted his condolences. “My thoughts are with those who lost their loved ones,” Modi said.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said he was saddened by the “loss of innocent lives”.
In June, a Pakistan International Airlines flight ploughed into a crowded Karachi neighbourhood, killing 97 people aboard and a child on the ground.
The last major plane crash in India was in 2010 when an Air India Express Boeing 737-800 from Dubai to Mangalore overshot the runway – again a table-top landing surface – and burst into flames.
The crash killed 158 people and left eight survivors.
Kerala regularly suffers from monsoon floods. At least 15 people were killed on Friday after a landslide triggered by heavy rains flattened a row of huts elsewhere in the state.
“It has been raining for the last two days… This is the third calamity in the region (this year). First floods, then a landslide and now this,” said senior local police officer Abdul Karim.