Image: Plane crash in India
AP
A relative breaks down near the coffin of one of the victims of the India Express plane crash in Mangalore, India on Sunday.
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updated 5/23/2010 7:00:11 PM ET 2010-05-23T23:00:11

As crash investigators pulled the black box from the charred, twisted wreckage of an Air India plane Sunday, Koolikkunnu Krishnan marveled that he escaped the crash alive.

Of the 166 passengers and crew aboard when the plane overshot a hilltop runway and plunged over a cliff at dawn Saturday, 158 were dead. Krishnan and just seven others survived.

"I've been thinking, 'Why me? Why me?' And I can only think that God wanted to give me a second life," he said from his hospital bed in Mangalore.

Investigators and aviation officials combed through the wreckage of the Boeing 737-800 strewn across a hillside to try to determine the cause of India's worst air disaster in more than a decade. They recovered the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder, which they hope will give them important clues, the Press Trust of India news agency reported.

A four-member U.S. forensic team also arrived in India to help in the investigation, said Harpreet Singh, an Air India spokeswoman.

By Sunday evening, 146 of the 158 bodies had been identified and were being handed to grieving relatives for burial, said Arvind Jadhav, Air India's chairman and managing director.

The cause of the crash was not clear and government officials declined to speak about the status of the investigation or any possible causes of the crash. The black box would be sent to New Delhi on Monday for decoding and further investigation, they said.

The flight from Dubai to Mangalore carried many of the millions of Indians who work as cheap labor in the Middle East back to their families for a rare visit during India's summer holiday season.

Krishnan, a 45-year-old maintenance worker in Dubai, was coming back to Kasargod, his village in southern India, for the first time in two years to see his wife and two daughters.

"I was literally counting the minutes before I would reach home, while the plane was landing," he said.

After the plane touched down at Mangalore's Bajpe airport, everything seemed to be fine, he said, but within seconds there was a shudder, the aircraft began swinging from side to side as if it had hit something and then it crashed, he said.

"People were screaming, children nearby were wailing loudly," he said.

The plane had broken apart, a fire had started and smoke was beginning to fill the aircraft, he said. Everyone was strapped into their seats.

"I struggled to open my seat belt and then climbed out of the plane. Then I hung onto the roots of a tree and crawled uphill," he said.

Slideshow: Grieving, searching

"I didn't think of anything at the time. All I knew was that I had to get out and get far away from the plane. The fire was spreading fast. Behind me I could feel other people jumping out but I didn't turn back to look," he said.

While Krishnan suffered shockingly minor injuries — pulled shoulder muscles and a cut in his forehead — many of those trapped in the aircraft were burnt nearly beyond recognition.

"I couldn't believe that he could have survived such a major crash," said Krishnan's wife, Bindu. "It's like he's been reborn."

Aviation experts said the eight survivors were seated in the center of the aircraft, near where it broke open, and they managed to get out before a fireball engulfed the plane.

"In this case it was pure luck of the draw," said Sidney Dekker, a professor of flight safety at the School of Aviation at Sweden's Lund University. "The luck of where you are in the airplane relative to how the fuselage disintegrates going into the ravine."

But most could not escape, and dozens of their relatives arrived Sunday on special Air India flights from Dubai and the southern Indian states of Karnataka and Kerala to take the bodies of their loved ones.

Mohammed Mustafa said his brother Naseem and three other relatives had taken the flight home to attend a wedding Tuesday.

"I lost them in this tragedy. Three of them, we could identify three of them yesterday. And late night, at around 12 o' clock, we found the fourth body. Now we have come for the funeral," Mustafa said.

Many of the victims were so badly burned their relatives could not identify them and experts had to be flown in to conduct DNA tests, said S. A. Prabhakarsharana, a local official.

"Since yesterday we have been trying to identify my brother's body," said K. Kushala.

One of the victims was Mahendra Kulkarni, a telecommunications company director in the Emirates, who was flying back to India with his ailing mother-in-law after she had slipped into coma, their cousin Nandit Banawalikar said.

Mohammed Siddiqui, 27, boarded the doomed flight within hours of a telephone call from his family in Kerala informing him of his father's sudden death.

He was rushing to attend the funeral on Saturday. Now his family was mourning a second time, said Abdur Rehman, a friend who was taking his body home.

The crash was the deadliest in India since a November 1996 midair collision killed 349 people. Saturday's crash happened when the plane overshot the runway, airline 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.

Kapil Kaul, an aviation expert at the Center for Asia Pacific Aviation, said the while India's air safety record is very good, he hopes the crash will push officials to establish an independent national safety board to ensure standards remain high as the booming economy drives more traffic into the skies.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: NTSB officials help

  1. Transcript of: NTSB officials help

    Newscast: US investigators in India after jet crash

    LESTER HOLT, anchor: Investigators from the United States are in India tonight to help find what caused the crash of an Air India jet. It broke up after landing yesterday, killing most of the 166 people on board. NBC 's Rehema Ellis has the latest.

    REHEMA ELLIS reporting: Sifting through the twisted, charred wreckage of the Air India plane crash scattered across a hillside, investigators say they found the flight recorder . Saturday the Boeing 737 overshot the hilltop runway, plunged into a valley, then burst into flames. Hard to imagine that any one of the 166 on board could come out of this alive, but eight did.

    Unidentified Man #1:(Through translator) The plane deviated and hit something. It caught fire and we fell out. We looked up and saw some opening and came out through that route.

    ELLIS: For a while, there was hope for this little girl, who was pulled from the mangled debris with severe burns and covered with flame-dousing foam. But overnight, she died. Now NTSB investigators are in India to help figure out what went wrong with the flight. While early reports point to pilot error, aviation experts say there's more to learn.

    Mr. MARK ROSENKER (Former NTSB Chairman): The flight data recorder 's going to give key information to positions of the throttle, positions of the landing gear, the flaps, all kinds of data which is critical to understanding what happened in those last moments.

    ELLIS: Today funerals began for victims. This man says his relatives were going to a wedding.

    Unidentified Man #2: I lost them in this tragedy. Three of them we couldn't find -- identify three of them yesterday. And last night around 12:00 we found the third -- fourth body.

    ELLIS: Meanwhile, other families continue the painful task of trying to identify the dead, grieving for loved ones and searching for answers to the cause of India 's worst air disaster in more than a decade. Rehema

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