Hunt for clues after India crash kills 158; 8 live

Investigators frantically sifted through the rubble of a crashed plane Sunday looking for the black boxes — the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder — after India’s worst air crash 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 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.

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.

On Sunday, dozens of grieving relatives arrived from Dubai and the southern Indian states of Karnataka and Kerala to claim the bodies of their dear ones.

Air India spokesman K. Swaminathan said Sunday that all eight of the survivors were hospitalized and none had died overnight, as some Indian media had reported.

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.

After the first few minutes of the crash on Saturday, 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.

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.

Weeping relatives of the victims visited hospitals where the bodies have been kept.

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.

An Associated Press photo showed two rescuers running up a hill carrying a young girl covered in foam to waiting medics. Though no details were available, the girl was believed to have died, because officials said the only female survivor was an adult.

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, a Serb with a British passport 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.

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.

Associated Press