152 die in Pakistan plane crash

Pakistani rescuers surround the wreckage of a plane that crashed in Islamabad. A government official says all 152 people on board the plane were killed. Photo: AP  

A Pakistani private airline with 152 people on board crashed into the Margalla Hills skirting the Capital on the north this morning (Wednesday); leaving no survivors and an entire hillside charred. Though hopes of survivors were kept alive for some hours following the crash, the government announced six hours later that all on board were dead even as efforts were afoot to get the bodies till late in the evening.

The Airblue flight ED 202 was flying in from Karachi to Islamabad and had been asked to await landing clearance at the Benazir Bhutto International Airport. While circling through heavy rain, it flew very low over Islamabad before it headed off towards the thickly wooded Margalla Hills which, according to Interior Minister Rehman Malik, is a “no fly zone”.

Eye-witnesses claimed to have seen the aircraft fly very low over Blue Area — the commercial quarters of the capital — and from all accounts, the Airbus 321 had its landing gear down. According to a statement put out by Airblue, the flight crashed due to poor weather and thick fog.

The plane lost contact with the control tower shortly before the crash and late in the evening, television networks reported that it had been warned against heading towards Margalla Hills. An enquiry has been ordered into the crash and the government announced a day of mourning for the victims of what is being billed as one of the worst tragedies in Pakistan’s aviation history.

Rain slows rescue operations

While the crash site itself was a good kilometer-and-a-half from the nearest road, rescue operations were further slowed down because much of the debris fell into a gorge. Accessing the debris and the site was made more difficult by the steady rain since Tuesday, rendering the terrain slippery and slow to negotiate. Helicopters were pressed into service to send commandoes into the gorge with ropes to cut through the debris and pull up the bodies.

To ensure against a traffic snarl on the approach road, only rescue vehicles were allowed up. Since the crash site was visible from much of Islamabad — particularly Margalla Road — cars were lined up through the picturesque avenue as people tried to catch a glimpse of what was going on. Several Islamabad-based relatives of passengers on the aircraft could be seen trying to access the site from other pathways suitable for trekking.

Emergency was declared in all hospitals in the city soon after the crash in anticipation of some survivors. However, as the day wore on, hopes faded and the focus changed towards identifying the bodies that were being brought in charred and mutilated. The deceased include two American nationals besides a couple of other foreigners.

Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani made an aerial survey of the crash site along with senior cabinet colleagues and Chief Ministers of Punjab, Sindh and Khyber-Pukhtoonkhwa who were present in the capital for a cabinet meeting which has since been postponed as the terror-struck nation steeled itself for another pile of body bags.

PTI reports:

“It saddens me to announce that (while) some intact bodies were showing signs of life, nobody has survived,” Interior Minister Rehman Malik said.

Bodies were mostly mutilated and in pieces, he said, adding they could not be identified immediately.

“It’s a big tragedy. It’s really a big tragedy,” he said.

Mr. Malik said he had asked the Federal Investigation Agency to ascertain the details of all passengers and to look into the possibility whether the crash may have been caused by an act of sabotage or terrorism.

Earlier, Mr. Malik and Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira had said that rescuers had found some survivors.

Two Americans, five members of the same family and a newly married couple coming to Islamabad for their honeymoon were among passengers of the aircraft, which took off from Karachi at 7.50 am.

Five children and 29 women were also on the aircraft.

The plane was about to land at Islamabad’s Benazir Bhutto International Airport when it lost radio contact with the control tower and later crashed into the thickly—forested hills overlooking the capital city, officials said.

The wreckage fell into a deep ravine between two hills.

Inaccessible hills impede rescue operations

Several hours after the crash, rescue workers and military personnel pulled out the bodies from the smoldering and burning wreckage that lay scattered over a thickly forested area in inaccessible hills shrouded by clouds and fog.

Officials said they believed the crash was caused by bad weather. However, the exact cause would be ascertained by an inquiry to be conducted by the Civil Aviation Authority, they said.

Officials and rescue workers said they were unable to find even a single body that was fully intact.

“We’ve completed 98 per cent of the rescue operations and no bodies have been recovered intact...We found heads, limbs and even fingers,” said Deputy Inspector General of Police Bin Yamin.

The body parts were placed in bags that were tied with rope and removed from the crash site.

Rescue workers said they had shouted out for possible survivors but received no response.

Army helicopters flew dozens of sorties to transport bags with body parts to a nearby helipad, from where they were brought by ambulances to different hospitals in Islamabad.

Experienced pilot

Airblue official Raheel Ahmed told reporters in Karachi that the aircraft’s pilot, Pervez Iqbal Chaudhry, had 35 years of experience and had logged over 25,000 flying hours.

The Airbus A321 was 10 years old and had been used by Airblue for the past four years, he said.

“It would not be correct to speculate about the cause of the crash. The aircraft was fully serviceable and there were no technical faults in it. The weather, no doubt, was bad but it was not below the parameters. The investigation by the Civil Aviation Authority will establish the facts,” Ahmed said.

Islamabad has been hit by heavy monsoon rains for the past three days and the city was covered by fog and low—lying clouds.

Local TV channels showed twisted metal parts hanging from trees and scattered across the ground.

The crash occurred in an area that is not easily accessible as the Margalla Hills are covered by thick forests.

Unexplained disappearance from radar

Mr. Malik said the aircraft was at 2,600 feet when it was cleared to land. It then rose up to 3,000 feet for “unexplained” reasons before disappearing from radar screens, he said.

“The (control) tower did not receive any SOS message or report of a technical problem before the crash,” Malik said.

Sources in the Civil Aviation Authority expressed surprise at authorities clearing the aircraft to land at Islamabad despite the poor visibility and bad weather.

The sources told PTI that state-run Pakistan International Airlines had diverted all its flights to Islamabad to Lahore.

Scores of anxious relatives of passengers gathered at the Benazir Bhutto International Airport and different hospitals in Islamabad to get information about their kin.

Many broke down and wept inconsolably.

President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani expressed shock and grief at the crash.

The government declared a day of national mourning and Gilani put off a meeting of his cabinet till next week.

The premier also surveyed rescue operations from the air.

Airbus said in a statement that the aircraft which crashed was 10 years old and leased to Airblue in 2006. It had made about 13,500 flights.

City residents said they had seen the aircraft flying “very low” over Islamabad shortly before the crash.

“I heard a loud bang and then saw smoke rising over the Margalla Hills,” said Aman Ali, a schoolboy.

Rescuers had to trek uphill for over an hour to reach the site, where they dug through the debris with bare hands to pull out body parts.

Witnesses said most of the bodies were difficult to identify as they were mutilated and burnt.

Flames and smoke continued to spew from the wreckage several hours later though some of the fires were extinguished by the rain.

The ill—fated aircraft had taken off from Karachi at 7.50 am and was scheduled to land in Islamabad after two hours.

Today’s crash was the worst aviation accident on Pakistani soil though PIA jets had crashed in Jeddah in 1979 and Kathmandu in 1992, killing 156 and 167 people, respectively.

The last major fatal crash in Pakistan occurred in the central city of Multan in July 2006, when a PIA Fokker F27 crashed, killing 45 people.

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Printable version | May 6, 2021 2:46:05 PM |

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