Dubai: Fierce rain and winds lashed a plane carrying 190 people before it crash-landed and tore in two at an airport in southern India, killing at least 18 people and injuring scores more, officials said on Saturday.
The flight data recorder of the jet has been recovered and authorities are searching for its cockpit voice recorder.
Together, the components make up the black box that can help investigators piece together what caused the Boeing Co. 737 to skid off the runway and break apart while attempting to land Friday. Operating as Flight 1344 for Air India Express from Dubai, the plane carrying 190 passengers and crew touched down with a tail wind, according to archived local weather data, which would be counter to the usual practice of landing into the wind for more control.
It came to rest in a valley near a hilltop airport in Kozhikode, India, which has been hit by torrential rains since Thursday.
The Air India Express Boeing 737, on a special flight from Dubai to bring back Indians stranded overseas by the coronavirus pandemic, overshot the runway at Kozhikode in Kerala state late on Friday, plunged down an embankment and broke up, according to first accounts.
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"Fuel had leaked out so it was a miracle that the plane did not catch fire, the toll could have been much higher," one senior emergency official at the scene said.
Passenger Renjith Panangad, 34, recalled the plane touching the ground and then everything went "blank".
"After the crash, the emergency door opened and I dragged myself out somehow," he said from a hospital bed in Kozhikode.
"The front part of the plane was gone - it was completely gone. I don't know how I made it but I'm grateful. I am still shaken."
Aviation minister Hardeep Singh Puri said the death toll had risen during the night to 18.
The fatalities included the two pilots as well as infants aged 10 months and 18 months, according to a hospital list seen by AFP. At least 15 people suffered critical injuries, doctors said.
Kozhikode is a tricky airport
Kozhikode is considered a tricky airport as it has a table-top runway with a steep drop at one end.
Kerala has been hit by severe floods in recent days and heavy rains had been falling for several hours at Kozhikode as the jet landed.
'Broke in two'
Indian media quoted air traffic control officials and a flight tracker website as showing that the Boeing 737 twice circled and started to land before it crashed at the third attempt.
The jet repeatedly jumped up and down in buffeting winds before the landing, survivors told Indian television.
The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) said only that the jet kept going to the end of the runway in the heavy rain and "fell down the ravine and broke in two".
Local taxi drivers and traders joined airport rescue staff to help free people from the wreckage in the dark and wet.
Three hours to clear all the injured
Several people on board had to be cut out with special equipment. It took three hours to clear all the injured and bodies, officials said.
Taxis ferried many of the injured to hospitals.
"Locals rushed to the spot after hearing the noise," one rescue worker said. "People came in cars, messages were being sent on WhatsApp... that people were needed to help.
"At first, people took the injured to the hospitals in their cars. Then the emergency services took over."
One of the infants died in a car before the child could receive treatment.
Stranded by coronavirus
The flight was one of hundreds in recent months to bring home tens of thousands of Indians stranded abroad by the coronavirus pandemic, many of them in Gulf countries.
According to flight documents seen by AFP, 15 of those on board had lost their jobs and 12 were returning for a medical emergency. Two were coming back to be married.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted his condolences.
"My thoughts are with those who lost their loved ones," Modi said.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said he was saddened by the "loss of innocent lives".
In June, a Pakistan International Airlines flight ploughed into a crowded Karachi neighbourhood, killing 97 people aboard and a child on the ground.
The last major plane crash in India was in 2010 when an Air India Express Boeing 737-800 from Dubai to Mangalore overshot the runway - again a table-top landing surface - and burst into flames.
The crash killed 158 people and left eight survivors.
Kerala regularly suffers from monsoon floods. At least 15 people were killed on Friday after a landslide triggered by heavy rains flattened a row of huts elsewhere in the state.
"It has been raining for the last two days... This is the third calamity in the region (this year). First floods, then a landslide and now this," said senior local police officer Abdul Karim.
Three AI aircraft reach Kozhikode to provide assistance
Two special relief flights from Delhi and one from Mumbai for rendering humanitarian assistance to all the passengers and the family members of the Air India Express crash-landing incident reached Kozhikode on Saturday.
AAIB, DGCA and Flight Safety Departments have reached to investigate the incident, the Air India Express stated.
An Air India Express flight took off around 2 am from Delhi to Kozhikode carrying investigating officers from DGCA and AAIB, CEO of Air India express and other officials of AI and AIE.
The second aircraft took off from Mumbai to Kozhikode around 6 am carrying Angels of Air India and GO employees, who will coordinate and liaise with various agencies and provide support and assist families of those affected in this incident.
The third flight also took off from Delhi around 6 am carrying the CMD and other senior officials of AI.
Meanwhile, Minister of State (Mos) for External Affairs V Muraleedharan on Saturday reached Kozhikode. He is likely to meet those injured in the crash and their family members.
Family of 5 flying home to Kozhikode escapes with injuries
A family of five, returning to their hometown at Koducalli in Kozhikode from Dubai, were aboard the fateful Air India Express flight.
Saifudheen, 40, is a businessman in Dubai. During the vacation when schools were closed here, his wife Fasalunnisa travelled, along with their children Muhammad Shahil, Fathima Sana and Aysha Shanza, to meet her husband.
On Friday, they were all travelling in the Air India aircraft to Kozhikode.
All five have received injuries and have been admitted to Baby Memorial Hospital Kozhikode except Sana, who is admitted to Al Shifa Hospital at Perinthalmanna in Malappuram.
"Saifudheen is my uncle. He and his family members were returning from Dubai when this unfortunate incident occurred. We were informed about the mishap at 8 pm. Now the family members have been shifted to Baby Memorial Hospital and everyone is fine now," Muhammad Salih, nephew of Saifudheen told ANI.
The death toll in the flight crash landing incident at Kozhikode International Airport in Kerala rose to 18, including two pilots, Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri said on Saturday.
The minister said that he will visit the Kozhikode airport to take stock of the situation.
Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, Kamal Haasan express grief
Superstars Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, and Kamal Haasan on Saturday expressed grief over the loss of lives in the tragic plane crash.
The senior actors took to Twitter to condole the demise of the passengers and two pilots in the tragic incident
"My heart goes out to the passengers and crew members onboard the #AirIndia flight. Deepest condolences to the bereaved families who lost their loved ones. Thoughts and prayers," tweeted Shah Rukh Khan.
Megastar Amitabh Bachchan also prayed for the families of the deceased and said, "A terrible tragedy .. Air India crash in Kerala, Kozhikode airport, plane skids off the runway on landing in heavy rain .. Prayers."
The southern superstar Kamal Haasan also took to Twitter to grief over the incident and for lauding the airport staff as well as medical professionals for dealing with tragedy swiftly.
"Condolences to the families who lost their members in the Kozhikode crash. Best wishes to those recovering in Hospitals," tweeted Hasaan.
"Kudos to the citizens of Calicut and the under-equipped staff of the airport. More strength to the already overworked medical professionals of Kerala," he added.
Shatrughan Sinha had also taken to the micro-blogging site early Saturday and mourned the demise of the two pilots who lost their lives saving the passengers.
"Very tragic to hear about the #CalicutAirCrash. We mourn the loss of Wing Cmdr.DVSathe & Akhilesh Kumar who died saving passengers," he tweeted.
"Heartfelt condolences & strength to their families & those who lost their loved ones. Prayers & healings to the injured passengers. #CalicutAirCrash," he added.