Hunt for Clues after India Plane Crash Kills 158; 8 Survive

By Aijaz Rahi | May 24, 2010

Grieving relatives collected the victims’ remains from a crashed Indian plane and investigators sifted through the rubble Sunday for the cockpit voice and the flight data recorder after India’s worst air disaster in more than a decade killed 158 people.

Eight people survived Saturday’s crash of an Air India Boeing 737-800 that overshot a hilltop runway 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.

Recovery of the black boxes is crucial for determining what went wrong with the aircraft as it came for landing after a flight from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

Investigators used cutters to search for the black boxes in the twisted wreckage of the aircraft, which was scattered along the hillside of thick grass and trees just outside Mangalore’s Bajpe airport.

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.

May-June is the summer holiday season for the Indian expatriates to attend weddings and visit their families back home.

Dozens of crestfallen relatives arrived Sunday on a special Air India flight from Dubai and the southern Indian states of Karnataka and Kerala to take back home the bodies of their loved ones. The NDTV news channel said relatives have so far identified 83 of the 158 bodies.

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 told The Associated Press. He was accompanied in Mangalore by Kulkarni’s wife and two children.

Mohammed Siddiqui, 27, boarded the doomed flight in Dubai 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 his death as well, said Abdur Rehman, a friend who was taking his body home.

Another victim, Abdul Aziz, in his late 30s, was returning home after he lost his job in a Dubai-based catering company, said relative Abdul Majid. “He was very concerned about his future because he had taken up this job only six months ago,” Majid told The AP.

Air India spokesman K. Swaminathan said that all eight survivors were still hospitalized Sunday.

After the first few minutes of the crash, there were no more survivors to be found. 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.

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.

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, 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.

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.

The crash happened about 6 a.m. when the plane tried to land at Bajpe, about 19 miles (30 kilometers) outside of Mangalore, and overshot the runway, said Srivastava, the official with the financially struggling Indian national carrier.

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

Associated Press writers Rafiq Maqbool in Mangalore, Ashok Sharma and Nirmala George in New Delhi, Sloboban Lekic in Brussels, Adam Schreck in Dubai and Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade contributed to this report.

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