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India plane crash kills scores; 8 survive

A plane trying to land in the rain at a hilltop airport in India overshot the runway and crashed Saturday, killing nearly 160 people, officials said. At least eight survived.
Image: Firefighters carry child covered in foam
Indian firefighters carry a child out of the debris of an Air India Express plane that crashed near Mangalore.AP
/ Source: staff and news service reports

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.

There were unconfirmed reports the child was taken to a Mangalore hospital with severe burns, but the child's fate was not immediately known.

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 was carrying 166 passengers — all Indian — and six crew members, Air India official Anup Srivastava said. The British pilot and Indian co-pilot were among the dead.

'Major calamity'
Relatives of the victims, who had come to the airport to meet them, stood near the wreckage weeping.

"This is a major calamity," V.S. Acharya, home minister for the state of Karnataka, told CNN-IBN.

However there were also extraordinary stories of survival.

"We had no hope to survive, but we survived," Pradeep, a passenger on the plane who is an Indian technician working in Dubai, told local television.

"The plane broke into two and we jumped off the plane. As soon as the plane landed, within seconds this happened."

The plane had a small fire at first, but then a large explosion set off a bigger blaze, he said.

"While landing at the airport, the plane deviated and hit something," said Krishna, another survivor who gave only one name. "It caught fire and we fell out. We looked up and saw some opening and came out through that route."

Ummer Farook Mohammed, a survivor who suffered burns 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 crash took place about 6 a.m. when the plane tried to land at Bajpe, about 19 miles outside of Mangalore, and overshot the runway, said Jitender Bhargava, another official with the financially struggling Indian national carrier.

Pre-monsoon rains over the past two days caused low visibility in the area, officials said.  Officials differed on whether it was raining at the time of the crash.

Villagers rush to help
Scores of villagers scrambled over the hilly terrain to reach the wreckage and began aiding in the rescue operation.

Image: Local residents react after seeing the site of a plane crash in Mangalore
Local residents react after seeing the site of a plane crash in Mangalore May 22, 2010. At least 160 people were confirmed dead in an Air India plane crash in southern India early on Saturday, officials said. REUTERS/Daijiworld (INDIA - Tags: DISASTER) BEST QUALITY AVAILABLEStringer/india / X01242

"The flight had already landed. There was slight rain. The flight skidded off," eyewitness Mohiuddin Bava told TV reporters, according to The Times of India. "After that it caught fire. Villagers, everyone there, came to rescue. The plane wings are right in front of me now."

By Saturday afternoon, rescuers had pulled 146 bodies from the wreckage. The eight rescued passengers were being treated in local hospitals, the airline said.

Indian officials said that conversations with the cockpit and other records showed the flight was operating normally before the touchdown.

"There was no distress indication from the pilot. That means between the pilot and the airport communication there was no indication of any problem," V.P. Agarwal, director of Airports Authority of India, told local television.

Air India runs cheap flights under the Air India Express banner to Dubai and other Middle Eastern destinations where millions of Indian expatriate workers are employed.

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.

At Dubai International Airport, a special room was set up to assist relatives and friends of the passengers at Terminal 2, a hub for many budget and small airlines.

The Mangalore airport's location, on a plateau surrounded by hills, made it difficult for the firefighters to reach the scene of the crash, 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.

"If the pilot overshoots the runway, the aircraft will be in trouble," said Asif, an aviation expert who uses one name.

Indian Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram said the plane's British pilot had more than 10,000 hours of flying experience, including 26 landings at Mangalore. The Indian co-pilot had more than 3,750 hours of experience and 66 landings at Mangalore, he said.

External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna said the Mangalore runway had a reputation for being difficult. "Our worst fears have come true," he told the Press Trust of India.

Accidents of this type, known as "runway excursions," are fairly common, though the majority end without injury or damage.

The International Civil Aviation Organization and pilots' groups have urged airports worldwide to construct 300-yard-long safety extensions at the end of each runway for extra protection.

Older airports in built-up areas or those in tight locations with little room for extensions are advised to install soft ground layers — known as arrestor beds — to slow planes, much as escape ramps on highways can stop trucks when their brakes fail.

The 8,000-foot Mangalore runway had a short spillover area of about 300 feet with a bed of sand designed to halt or slow a plane that overshoots, Patel said. "Obviously, the aircraft was at a higher speed," he said.

More than 32,000 landings had been made on the runway since it opened in 2006, officials said.

The crash came as the national carrier tries to weather serious financial difficulties.

In February, the government approved a $173 million cash infusion for the airline, which has suffered decades of mismanagement and under-investment.