Airliner crashes in Pakistan, killing all 127 aboard

McClatchy NewspapersApril 20, 2012 

— An airliner on a domestic flight crashed Friday near the Pakistani capital of Islamabad with 127 people on board after trying to land in stormy weather, officials and news reports said.

No survivors were found, officials and rescuers reported. Bodies and parts of the plane lay scattered over a wide area, in fields and a village, some three to four miles from the Islamabad airport, where the aircraft had been due to land around 6:40 p.m. local time. The flight had taken off from Karachi, Pakistan’s primary port, just after 5 p.m.

There was heavy rain, lightning and low clouds in the Islamabad area as the plane, an aged Boeing 737-200 flown by the local Bhoja Air, a private budget airline, came in to land.

“The weather was very rough. There was thunder and hail,” said Arshad Mehmood, a naval pilot who witnessed the crash and rushed to the scene. “The plane stalled and descended very rapidly. The most likely reason was the weather. The pilot could not control the plane.”

He continued: “We got there within five minutes. There were dead bodies and pieces of bodies everywhere. We could find no survivors.”

Civilian and military rescue teams and residents worked at the scene, recovering bodies. An emergency was declared in hospitals around Islamabad.

Twisted, battered, burned pieces of the plane were scattered over about half a mile. An intact set of wheels lay in the field, along with one of the plane’s doors. Children’s shoes, identity cards, women’s jewelry and other possessions were strewn over the scene. Villagers said they ran out to look for anyone alive but found only corpses.

There were 118 passengers, including 68 women and six infants, and nine crew members on board. No foreigners were on the flight, said Mansab Bokhari, an airport official in Karachi.

Emergency services struggled to find their way to the crash site at the village of Hussainabad, in the sparsely populated clay valleys six miles to the east of Islamabad airport.

The one road leading to the site was barely wide enough to accommodate one vehicle at a time, and for the most part barely paved, creating a mile-long queue of ambulances and fire engines that took two hours to reach the crash site.

Villagers said they’d seen a lightning flash and then heard a massive explosion, which was followed by a rain of aircraft parts and bodies. Some landed on the roofs and in the courtyards of the villagers’ homes.

Debris from the aircraft was strewn over several miles.

“I was with my family about to eat dinner when there was a flash, a huge bang, and then things started falling,” said Niaz Kayani, a retired soldier. “It was a scene from hell: bodies were all over the place, in the fields and on the roofs of homes.”

Working in pitch dark, rescue workers and volunteers scoured surrounding fields of nearly ripe wheat, using flashlights and the lights of cellphones to look for survivors.

Instead, they found corpses and body parts.

Mohammad Alamdar, a civil defence supervisor, sat with his colleagues in the middle of a field, poking at shreds of clothing. Lifting one, he said, “This belonged to a little girl. She couldn’t have been much older than three or four years old.”

Distraught, hysterical relatives gathered at the Karachi and Islamabad airports.

At the Karachi airport, one wailing relative, who didn’t give his name, said that his cousin Sajjad Ali Rizvi and Rizvi’s wife, Sania Abbas, who’d gotten married just 20 days earlier, had been on board. Television showed a picture of the couple on their wedding day, dressed in glittering clothes. Four honeymooning couples were said to have been on board.

The pilot was a former air force pilot. The flight recorder was found.

There was speculation that Bhoja, as a low-cost carrier, would have tried to save fuel and land at Islamabad, despite the poor weather conditions, rather than divert to another airport. Bhoja previously had closed because of financial difficulties in 2000, and was relaunched last month. Friday was the inaugural flight of the 5 p.m. service from Karachi to Islamabad.

An aviation expert, Razaullah Khan, said the plane probably was hit by a cloud burst, causing a powerful downdraft that pushed the aircraft to the ground.

“The pilot probably tried to get out from under low clouds,” Khan said.

There were no casualties among people who live at the crash site. The plane narrowly avoided heavily populated areas in Islamabad and the adjacent city of Rawalpindi.

The 737-200 aircraft, a twin engine narrow-body jetliner, was first introduced to service in 1968. The 737 has had many newer variants subsequently introduced by Boeing, up to the 737-900. The 737-200 now is used mostly in the developing world. It was phased out of use in the United States by 2008.

Less than two years ago, Islamabad suffered a previous plane crash, when an aircraft flew into the hills that flank the city, killing all 152 people on board. It was flown by another private airline, Air Blue. Questions have been raised frequently about the quality of maintenance of Pakistani airlines.

Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. McClatchy special correspondent Tom Hussain contributed from Hussainabad, Pakistan.

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