In Nepal’s deadliest aviation accident in over three decades, a domestic flight with 72 people, including five Indians, crashed into a gorge on Sunday while attempting to land at the newly opened international airport in the city of Pokhara, killing at least 71 on board. Passengers included 25 women, three children and as many infants. It remains unclear what caused the crash in non-windy weather, but the black box of the crashed aircraft was recovered on Monday.
The fatal crash: what happened?
A twin-engine ATR 72-500 aircraft of Nepal’s Yeti Airlines, with registration number 9N-ANC, took off from the Tribhuvan International Airport in the capital Kathmandu for Pokhara at around 10:30 a.m., with 68 passengers and four crew members on board. Moments before its scheduled landing, the aircraft crashed between the old airport and the new airport on the bank of the Seti River around 11 a.m. — about 1.6 kilometres from the Pokhara airport.
The ATR 72 plane
The plane smashed into pieces and burst into flames after it plummeted into a gorge. The aircraft’s fuselage, mangled remains of wings and passenger seats were strewn across the crash site. A witness, Diwas Bohora, who recorded footage of the plane’s descent said he saw the plane flying low before it suddenly veered to its left and crashed.
One of the plane’s wings reportedly hit the ground about 12 metres from a residential area, reported The Kathmandu Post. A witness told the newspaper that she was washing clothes in the front yard of her house when she saw the tilted plane. “The aircraft was tilted at an unusual angle and moments later, I heard a bomb-like explosion. Then I saw a plume of black smoke billowing from the Seti gorge,” Kalpana Sunar said.
Children playing outside also saw the plane spiralling down. Two 11-year-olds told the daily that they initially thought it to be a toy but ran away when the aircraft came close. “Suddenly, there was darkness all around. It looked like the aircraft’s tyre would touch us as it fell,” one of them said.
Another video capturing the last moments, purportedly shot by one of the Indian passengers on board, also surfaced online on Monday.
The search and rescue operation
Soldiers from the Nepal Army, the Armed Police Force personnel, the Nepal Police and locals rushed in to search for survivors. Battling cloudy weather and poor visibility, they searched the wreckage. Ropes and stretchers were used to retrieve bodies, some burned beyond recognition, from the 300-metre (almost 1,000-foot) gorge.
The rescue efforts were hampered by thick smoke and a raging fire. “The flames were so hot that we couldn’t go near the wreckage. I heard a man crying for help, but because of the flames and smoke, we couldn’t help him,” a resident told Associated Press. Another told AFP that he was walking when he heard a loud blast. “A few of us rushed to see if we could rescue anybody. I saw at least two women breathing. The fire was getting very intense and it made it difficult for us to approach closer,” the witness said.
Officials stopped the search and rescue operation overnight after battling cloudy weather and poor visibility for hours. Sixty-eight people were confirmed dead when the rescue work was suspended for the day, the aviation authority of Nepal said in a statement.
The search for the last missing person is underway. The Civil Aviation Authority said that 42 people have been identified so far.
What about the Indians on board?
The five Indians on board the ill-fated aircraft hailed from Uttar Pradesh. They have been identified as Abhisekh Kushwaha (25), Bishal Sharma (22), Anil Kumar Rajbhar (27), Sonu Jaiswal (35) and Sanjaya Jaiswal. A resident who travelled with them said four of the five were in Nepal for paragliding in Pokhara. Ten other foreigners on board included four Russians, two South Koreans, and one passenger each from Argentina, Australia, France and Ireland.
Why did the plane crash?
The cause of the deadly crash has not been ascertained so far. The spokesperson for the Pokhara airport, Anup Joshi, said the weather was clear and no issue was reported when Captain Kamal KC — the pilot in command — made first contact with the control tower. The captain asked for permission to switch runways, which was granted, following which the aircraft began its descent, Joshi told local media. The plane made final contact with the airport at 10.50 a.m. and crashed moments before landing.
Calling for a probe, Kathmandu airport’s General Manager Premnath Thakur said, “At 10.32 a.m, the plane took off from Kathmandu. It was scheduled to land at Pokhara at 10.58 a.m. Was in continuous contact with Pokhara Tower. The landing clearance of that plane had also been obtained. The weather was also fine. Everything was fine then how the accident happened is a matter of investigation.”
Flight tracking website FlightRadar24 claimed that the aircraft was 15 years old and equipped with an “old transponder with unreliable data.”
“Throughout the flight, the transponder on 9N-ANC sent erroneous altitude and speed data. The rapid change in altitude is indicative of those erroneous values. The flight stopped transmitting position data seven minutes before the last data from the aircraft was received,” it said in a report.
Meanwhile, a team of experts from the French company that manufactures the ATR aircraft arrived in Nepal on Tuesday to assist in probe.
Nepal’s troubled history of crashes
The Himalayan nation, home to eight of the world’s 14 highest mountains, has a troubling history of aviation accidents. More than 900 people, including 350 since 2000, have been killed in air crashes in Nepal since the first crash in Nepal’s Simara in 1955, as per the country’s civil aviation body. The accident on Sunday was the 104th crash and the third biggest in terms of casualties in Nepal, according to the Aviation Safety Network. While 113 people were killed in a Thai Airways aircraft crash in July 1992, 167 died a few months later when a Pakistan International Airlines plane crashed on approach to the capital.
A civil aviation authority safety report, published in 2019, identified the country’s “hostile topography” and “diverse weather patterns” as the biggest dangers to flights in the country. The report said such accidents happened at airports that had short runway strips for takeoff and landing. The runway of Pokhara International Airport, for example, is 45 metres wide and 2,500 metres long.
(With inputs from agencies)