At least 18 people were killed and more than 150 others injured when a passenger jet skidded off a hilltop runway after landing in heavy rain in the southern city of Kozhikode in India.
Hardeep Singh Puri, the Indian civil aviation minister, told ANI news agency on Saturday 18 people including two pilots were killed in Friday’s “unfortunate” crash.
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Some 149 patients remain in hospital after some were discharged, K Gopalakrishnan, chief of the Malappuram district in the southern state of Kerala, said.
Local TV news channels showed passengers, some of them lying motionless on stretchers, brought into a hospital surrounded by health workers wearing masks because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
TV visuals showed the aircraft’s nose smashed into a brick wall, with much of the middle of the plane pulverised.
Puri told a news conference on Saturday it would be premature to speculate on the precise cause of the accident. He said two separate teams had already reached Kozhikode from New Delhi to carry out an investigation into the crash.
The flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder have been recovered from the site, a top official at the Directorate General of Civil Aviation told the Reuters news agency.
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 the AFP news agency 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.”
The Air India Express flight from Dubai to Kozhikode, also called Calicut, was repatriating Indians stranded overseas amid the coronavirus pandemic. The plane was carrying 190 passengers and crew, the Ministry of Civil Aviation said in a statement. Among them were 10 infants.
18 people, including two pilots, have lost their lives, it is unfortunate. 127 people are at hospitals, others have been released: Hardeep Singh Puri, Civil Aviation Minister on #AirIndiaExpress flight that crash-landed at Kozhikode International Airport in Karipur yesterday pic.twitter.com/af6xGMdKEr
— ANI (@ANI) August 8, 2020
Abdul Karim, a senior Kerala state police officer, said at least 15 of the injured were in critical condition.
“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.
Pic from Karipur airport. It was Air India Express plane pic.twitter.com/PhNNtg2roM
— Dhanya Rajendran (@dhanyarajendran) August 7, 2020
One passenger who gave his name as Ashraf said it was about 7pm local time (13:30 GMT) when the aircraft came down.
“The pilot tried a lot to land us [safely] in the rainy weather … we crash-landed. It was difficult to land, he tried a lot,” he said.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted he was “pained by the plane accident”.
Kozhikode’s 2,850-metre (9,350-foot) runway is on a flat hilltop with deep gorges on either side ending in a 34-metre (112-foot) drop.
The plane’s fuselage split into two as it fell into a valley 10 metres (30 feet) below, authorities said.
“The incident happened because of heavy rains and poor visibility. This is truly devastating,” Amitabh Kant, who heads the government’s planning commission, told NDTV news channel.
A similar tragedy was narrowly avoided at the same airport a year ago, when an Air India Express flight suffered a tail strike upon landing. None of the 180 passengers of that flight was injured.
The airport’s runway end safety area was expanded in 2018 to accommodate wide-body aircraft.
The runway end safety area meets United Nations international civil aviation requirements, but the UN agency recommends a buffer that is 150 metres (492 feet) longer than what exists at Kozhikode airport, according to Harro Ranter, chief executive of the Aviation Safety Network online database.
Air India Express is a subsidiary of Air India.
Friday’s crash is the worst passenger aircraft accident in the country since 2010, when an Air India Express flight, also from Dubai, overshot the runway and slid down a hill while landing in the southern Indian city of Mangalore, killing 158 people.
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.