Mangalore, India Eight people escaped the crash of an Indian jetliner with 166 people on board that overshot a hilltop runway in southern India and plunged over a cliff, officials said. At least some of the survivors managed to jump from the wreckage just before it burst into flames.
Firefighters struggled to reach the twisted, smoking wreckage of the Boeing 737-800, which was scattered along the hillside of thick grass and trees just outside Mangalore’s Bajpe airport.
But after the first few minutes, there were no more survivors to be found around what remained of the Air India Express flight from Dubai to this port city. Instead, scores of burned bodies were pulled 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.
Air India, the country’s national carrier, runs inexpensive flights under the Air India Express banner to Dubai and other Middle Eastern destinations where millions of Indians are employed.
Relatives of the victims, who had been waiting at the airport for the plane’s arrival, stood near the wreckage weeping.
Ummer Farook Mohammed, a survivor burned on his face and hands, said it felt like a tire burst after the plane landed. “There was a loud bang, and the plane caught fire,” he said.
“The plane shook with vibrations and split into two,” G.K. Pradeep, another survivor, told CNN-IBN television. He jumped out of the aircraft with four others into a pit, he said. Moments later, a large explosion set off a blaze that consumed the wreckage, he said. It was not immediately clear if all the survivors escaped in the same way.
Firefighters sprayed water and foam on the plane as others struggled to find survivors. An Associated Press photo showed two rescuers running up a hill carrying a young girl covered in foam to waiting medics. Though no details were available, the girl was believed to have died, because officials said the only female survivor was an adult.
The plane was carrying 160 passengers — all Indian — and six crew members, Air India official Anup Srivastava said. Four infants and 19 other children were among the passengers. The British pilot, who was of Serbian origin, and an Indian co-pilot were among the dead, officials said.
Employees of JAT Airways, the Serbian national carrier, identified the captain as Zlatko Glusica, 55, a Serb with a British passport who had been flying for Air India for the past three years. He had previously flown for JAT, but like many pilots had left the airline in recent years as it plunged into deep financial troubles. The JAT employees spoke on condition they not be identified, because they were not permitted to speak to the media.
By Saturday night, rescuers had pulled 158 bodies from the wreckage. The eight survivors were being treated in hospitals, the airline said.
Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel said that conversations with the cockpit and other records showed the flight was operating normally before the touchdown.
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 that 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.