Nightly News   |  May 22, 2010

8 survive, scores die as Indian jet crashes

According to officials, the Air India Express plane was trying to land at a hilltop airport when it overshot the runway and plunged into a valley. NBC’s Keir Simmons reports.

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This content comes from a Full-Text Transcript of the program.

LESTER HOLT, anchor: For the third time in less than two months there has been a major air disaster overseas. The latest happened early today in western India when an Air India Express Boeing 737 filled with people careened off a hilltop runway, exploding into flames and killing nearly everyone on board. And just as in recent fatal crashes in Libya and Russia , this one happened during a landing attempt. As investigators from India and the US begin the search for answers at the airport in Mangalore , the focus is also on the flight's miracle survivors who, tonight, are telling their stories. From London , NBC 's Keir Simmons has the latest.

KEIR SIMMONS reporting: The Boeing 737 overshot the runway, plunging into a valley, bursting into flames, the tail one of the few parts of the aircraft still recognizable. Firefighters and villagers scrambled over difficult terrain to reach the wreckage. Incredibly, eight of the 166 people on board survived. Many died still strapped to their seats. A local reporter told NBC News :

Ms. MAYA SHARMA: One family believed to have lost 16 members, one single family losing 16 people on that flight. And among the dead, at least 20 children, according to one of the eyewitnesses.

SIMMONS: Amid the tragedy, a moment of hope: a child carried from the plane covered in foam to douse the flames, put into the arms of medics and taken to a hospital. The burns were so severe, it's not known if the child is among those who survived. Survivors like this little girl and others with frightening stories.

Mr. UMMER FAROOK MOHAMMED:

SIMMONS: `The plane was filled with smoke,' says Ummer Farook Mohammed . `There was total chaos. A part of the plane broke off. I jumped out. There was another passenger in front of me, so I pushed him out.' He believes a tire burst. Another says it felt as if the plane hit something.

Unidentified Man:

SIMMONS: Mangalore is a hilltop airport where pilots report that landings can be tricky. But officials deny it's dangerous.

Mr. MADHAVAN NAMBIAR (Civil Aviation Secretary): I would like to emphasize that from 2006 there have been over 32,000 landings in this Mangalore runway.

SIMMONS: They say there was no mayday call from the pilots.

Mr. MARK ROSENKER (Former NTSB Chairman): They are experienced pilots that have gone into this airport a number of times. The real question will be what was different this time than any of the other times they've made this approach and landing?

SIMMONS: Among the rescuers at the crash scene, there were also relatives, people who'd come to the airport to meet loved ones then rushed to find them in the wreckage. They are now left looking for answers. And tonight, Lester , investigators are working to find those answers, trying to figure out just what went wrong here. The working theory right now is

pilot error. Lester: Keir Simmons tonight, thank you. The plane involved in this crash was an American-made Boeing 737 , and tonight representatives from

HOLT: