At least 18 people were killed and more than 120 injured when an Air India Express airliner left the runway on Friday evening and broke in two after landing in a storm in southern India officials said on Saturday.
Air India Express’s Boeing 737, a special flight from Dubai to repatriate Indians stranded abroad by the pandemic, like dozens of other flights in recent weeks, passed the airport runway on Friday evening from Kozhikode, in the state of Kerala (southern India), rolled down a steep slope and broke up. The plane was carrying 190 people, crew included, according to the authorities’ latest report.
“The fuel spilled out, it’s a miracle the plane didn’t catch fire. The toll could have been much worse, ”said an on-site relief official.
A passenger, Renjith Panangad, 34, remembers that the aircraft touched the ground, then it is the “blackout”.
“After the accident, the emergency exit opened and I extricated myself” from the carcass, he says from his hospital bed in Kozhikode. “The front of the plane was gone,” he said, “I’m still in shock”.
The impact was so brutal that the nose of the aircraft was thrown 20 meters from the rest of the aircraft.
“We only heard screams everywhere. People were covered in blood, some had broken bones, others were unconscious, ”describes Fazal Puthiyakath, a 32-year-old resident among the first to arrive.
Eighteen people were killed, according to Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh, and 22 people remain in critical condition, according to local authorities.
Among those killed were the two pilots and four children, including babies.
Kozhikode is considered a tricky airport because its runway is located on a raised plateau and ends with a steep slope at one end.
The state of Kerala is hit by severe flooding and heavy rain had been falling for several hours when the plane landed.
Indian media, citing an in-flight aircraft tracking site and air traffic control officials, said the Boeing 737 pilots had made two unsuccessful attempts to land before the crash.
The aircraft was blown into the wind before landing, survivors told Indian TV.
According to the aeronautical regulatory agency DGCA, the plane skidded at the end of the runway, “fell into the valley and broke in two”.
In the dark and in the rain, taxi drivers and local traders joined in to extract victims from the wreckage. Some had to be extricated with special equipment.
Authorities said it took three hours to clear the wounded and dead. Many of the injured were taken to hospital by taxi.
“The inhabitants rushed to the scene after hearing the noise,” said a rescuer. “People came by car, messages were sent on WhatsApp (…) saying that people were needed to help”.
“First, people took the injured to the hospital in their cars. Then the emergency services took over, ”he added.
Kerala’s Health Minister KK Shailaja has called on everyone involved in the rescue to quarantine themselves, due to the risk of being contaminated with Covid-19 by passengers.
According to flight documents seen by AFP, 15 passengers had lost their jobs, 12 were returning due to a medical emergency and two to get married.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed his condolences on Twitter. “My thoughts are with those who have lost loved ones,” he wrote.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said he was saddened by “the loss of innocent lives”.
The last serious air crash in India dates back to 2010, when an Air India Express Boeing 737-800 from Dubai to Mangalore overshot the runway and exploded, killing 158 people. Eight people had survived.