ISLAMABAD — Two Americans were among the 152 passengers and crew members who died Wednesday when an Airbus A321 operated by a private Pakistani carrier crashed amid heavy rain into the hills that surround the capital of Islamabad. It was the worst air crash in Pakistani aviation history.
The Airblue plane was on a flight from Karachi when it crashed at around 10 a.m. local time. It carried 146 passengers and a crew of six.
The aircraft had made one pass at landing before airport controllers ordered it to abort, but it remained unclear why it then flew so low and seemingly straight toward the cloud-covered hills. The plane disintegrated on impact, scattering the wreckage. Thick smoke rose from the crash site.
The plane crashed in dense forest near the top of a hill, about an hour away from the nearest road, making access to the wreckage difficult. Rescuers reached the spot on foot, while helicopters struggled to help.
Muhammad Jameel Kayani, an engineer who rushed to the scene as a volunteer, said he didn’t see a single intact body.
“We saw small bits of bodies. We just put the parts in bags,” said a dirt-covered Kayani, who'd gone on to the hospital. Hundreds of relatives, friends and colleagues of those killed gathered across the grounds of Islamabad's Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences hospital, and many rushed forward as each ambulance arrived. Hospital authorities hadn't set up any identification process, and the only information available was a list of those who'd been on the flight posted on a wall.
The bundles of body parts were unloaded carefully from the ambulances onto trolleys as anxious relatives pushed forward, hoping to catch a glimpse of a loved one.
“It is a great tragedy, and I confirm it with pain that there are no survivors,” said Imtiaz Elahi, the chairman of Islamabad's Capital Development Authority, which deals with emergencies in the city.
The U.S. Embassy in Islamabad confirmed the deaths of two Americans. Richard Snelsire, a spokesman for the embassy, said that no further details would be released until the next of kin were informed.
“What can the hospital do? It can’t save anyone,” said Surzamin Khan, whose 25-year-old son, Ansar, a captain in the army, had been on board the aircraft.
“Life is in God’s hands. It is he who gives and it is he who has taken it away,” he added, speaking at the hospital.
“Everybody has to go sometime, but if you see the body at least you’d get some peace,” said Muhammad Shakeel Bhinder, who'd gone at the hospital in place of a co-worker who was too distraught to go.
His colleague, Habibullah Dumki, who works in Islamabad at the Federal Investigation Agency, which probes fraud and other serious crime, lost his wife and three young children on the flight. “He keeps fainting. He’s in no condition to come here,” Bhinder said.
Among the dead were a newly married couple, en route to the hill resort of Murree outside Islamabad for their honeymoon. Also killed were six members of the “youth parliament,” an initiative by a civil activist group to train youngsters to be politicians, including the “youth prime minister.” They were all in their late teens or early 20s.
Late Wednesday, Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira announced that about 115 bodies had been removed from the site, though he couldn’t be exact as only 12 were intact. He asked close relatives of the deceased to provide blood samples, as the only way of identifying most of the dead would be DNA testing.
Kaira said that the "black box" flight data recorder hadn't been recovered so far.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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