Dubai/Mumbai: Grieving relatives collected the victims' remains from a crashed Indian plane and investigators sifted through the rubble on Sunday for the cockpit voice and the flight data recorder after India's worst air disaster in more than a decade killed 158 people.
The flight data recorder was found later on Sunday and was handed over to the Directorate General Civil Aviation.
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.
The weekend calm was shattered as residents across the UAE on Saturday woke up to the horrific news that an Air India Express flight from Dubai to Mangalore had turned into a ball of fire soon after touchdown.
Flight IX812, a Boeing 737-800, with 160 passengers and six crew members on board, veered off the "tabletop" runway at Bajpe airport in the Indian state of Karnataka and plunged into a ravine, where it burst into flames shortly after 6am local time.
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.
Officials described the landing conditions as fair with good visibility and said there had been no distress call from the cockpit.
Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel, who flew to the crash site, said eight passengers had survived. Overnight, Air India released the names of seven survivors.
Anxious relatives made calls home to India and some flew immediately to identify loved ones.
Eight passengers survived. "It was pitch dark inside the aircraft and passengers were screaming. I saw death face to face but then the aircraft cracked open on my side and I jumped out," said Abdul Hakim, 32, a Dubai resident who works at Ibn Battuta Mall.
"The aircraft had caught fire and all I could do was run as fast as I could. I fell into a deep pit and heard a huge explosion ... I knew I had made it," Hakim told Gulf News over the phone from Mangalore.
No distress call
The Indian civil aviation ministry said there was no distress call. "It was a normal flight until touchdown," Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel told reporters.
He said the conversation betweeen pilots and the Air Traffic Control appeared to be normal. "There was no rain and the wind was calm. The aircraft was two-and-a-half years old and in good condition," he said
Patel said the commander Z. Gilusci, a British national of Serbian origin, and co-pilot H.S. Ahluwalia were experienced pilots who were familiar with Mangalore airport. Air India Express said it will fly relatives free to Mangalore.
Of the 160 passengers, there were 137 adults (105 men and 32 women), 19 children and four infants.
All the passengers were Indian nationals, said an Air India official in Dubai.See list of passengers
"There were 19 children and 4 infants onboard," he said.
The official said the four infants were among those killed in the crash, along with the six crew members, namely Captain Z. Glusica, Co-pilot, H.S Aluwalia, S. Survasi, Y. Rana, T.A. Kamalkar and M. Ali.
The airline has issued 25 free tickets to relatives of victims to fly to Calicut. "We will also consider operating chartered flights if the need arises," he said.
The airline has set up helplines for people to make inquires from Dubai. The control room numbers are 00971 4 2165828, or 00971 4 2165829. The other number is 00971 503780114.
In a statement, Air India Express said that the survivors have been taken to the hospital.
Firefighters had to cross a railway line and battle through trees to reach the wreckage, according to the reports.
In a statement, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed condolences over the "grievous loss of life", announcing compensation for those killed. Singh postponed celebrations to mark the first anniversary of his re-election.
In Dubai, the Indian Consulate expressed "grief over the tragic air accident in Mangalore".
The consulate said it is ready to assist family members who want to travel to India and require passport, visa and other Consular services. They may contact the Consulate hotlines 00971 4 3960174, 3971222 and 3971333 for assistance.
In Pakistan, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani sent condolences to the Indian prime minister.
"I was deeply shocked to learn of the tragic crash of an Air India Express aircraft this morning in Karnataka, resulting in the loss of many precious lives," Gilani said in the message to Singh.
"On behalf of the government and people of Pakistan and on my own behalf, I would like to convey our deepest condolences and sympathies to the bereaved families," Gilani added.
Boeing is sending a team to provide technical assistance to the investigation at the invitation of Indian authorities, the Chicago-based aircraft manufacturer said in a statement.
According to media reports, authorities are not ruling out pilot error is a major factor for the crash. The pilot reportedly landed midway on the runway and did not have a scope for braking.
Television channels said the plane crashed around 6:30am (0100 GMT). TV images showed it struck a forested area. Flames were seen blazing from of some of the wreckage as rescue workers fought to bring the fire under control.
"We had no hope to survive, but we survived," Pradeep, a survivor 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."
Abdullah, another survivor, told local channel TV9 that he "jumped out of the plane after it crashed. I saw two other people also come out."
"There was tyre-burst kind of noise. I tried to get out of the front but saw that there was a big fire. So I went back again and jumped out from there," he said.
One television channel showed a fireman carrying in his arms what seemed to be the remains of a child. Charred bodies and an engine lay in the forested terrain.
"The flight had already landed. There was slight rain. The flight skidded off," Mohiuddin Bava told CNN-IBN channel. "After that it caught fire. Villagers, everyone there, came to rescue. The plane wings are right in front of me now."
Air India Express is the budget arm of state-run carrier Air India. The budget airline started about five years ago. This is the first crash involving an Air India Express plane, according to an Air India spokesman.
Air India is a state-run loss making carrier. The government has been trying to infuse funds to revive the airline against stiff competition from private carriers.
If you are in the UAE, call the Air India helpline on 00971 4 2165828, or 00971 4 2165829. The other number is 00971 503780114.
The hotline for Air India Express at Terminal 2 in Dubai are 00971 4 2690118 and 2666950.
In India, the helpline to call is 0091 011 25656196 or 0091 011 26503101. In Mangalore, the helplines are: 0091 8242450641 and 0091 8242220450
A chronology of Indian air accidents
October 19, 1988: Indian Airlines flight from Mumbai crashes in heavy fog at Ahmedabad, killing 124 out of 129 passengers
February 14, 1990: Passenger plane from Mumbai crashes on landing at Bangalore airport, killing 92 out of 146 passengers
August 16, 1991: Pilot error blamed after a passenger flight crashes on descent at Imphal in remote Manipur state, killing 69
April 26, 1993: Indian Airlines flight stopping on route from Delhi to Mumbai crashes on take-off at Aurangabad airport in Maharashtra, killing 55 of 118 passengers
November 12, 1996: Saudi Arabian Airlines flight collides midair with Kazakhastan Airlines flight near New Delhi, all 349 on board killed
July 17, 2000: Alliance Air flight crashes at Patna airport, killing 60 passengers
May 22, 2010: About 160 people are killed when an Air India Express flight overshoots the runaway at Mangalore airport and bursts into flames
With input from agencies
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