Plane crash in India kills 158 people, 8 survive

The Boeing 727 from Dubai was carrying 160 passengers and six crew members when it overshot a table-top runway and tumbled off a cliff into a valley. The crash took place outside the city of Mangalore in southern India.
By Rama Lakshmi
Saturday, May 22, 2010; 12:32 PM

NEW DELHI -- An Air India Express plane overshot a table-top runway in southern India on Saturday and tumbled off a cliff into a heavily wooded hilly area, killing 158 people, officials said.

The Boeing 737 from Dubai carried 160 passengers and six crew members when it crashed outside the city of Mangalore at 6:30 a.m. It then caught fire, hampering immediate rescue attempts from people in the neighboring village of Manapur.

Television images showed charred bodies being pulled out of the wreckage as firefighters worked to douse the flames. In one case, a child's limp, burned body was extricated from the smoldering plane by a policeman, who carried the child up a hill as other rescuers offered to pull him up.

Eight passengers were rescued and taken to hospitals for treatment, Air India director Anup Srivastava said in a statement. "We are setting up help lines and contacting relatives," he said.

All the passengers were Indian and, of them, there were 105 men, 32 women, 19 children and four infants, Srivastava told an afternoon news conference. The plane also carried two pilots and four cabin crew members.

Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel said three survivors suffered major injuries, three escaped with minor injuries and one passenger was unhurt. By Saturday afternoon, 146 bodies had been recovered.

But across the nation, aviation analysts debated whether the cause of the crash was pilot error or an inherently unsafe runway.

Patel described the pilot of the doomed flight, Zlatko Glusica, as seasoned and experienced, with about 2,700 hours flying a Boeing 737 and 10,000 hours in the cockpit. Patel added that Glusica, a British citizen, also was familiar with Mangalore airport and runway, having flown in and out several times.

"Because the spillover area is very limited on the runway, [the plane] went over the cliff," Patel told reporters in Mangalore. A team has been set up to investigate the causes of the crash. Aviation officials said the black box and voice recorder had not yet been recovered.

The aircraft was acquired in 2007 and was without any "history of defects or any malfunction," Patel said. Weather conditions at the time of the crash were relatively normal with calm winds, and visibility was adequate, he said. "There was no rain at the time of the incident. The runway was also dry," he said, adding that everything about the flight appeared to be normal, except for the touchdown.

"It all happened in just a few seconds," one survivor, Abdul Totuttur, said by telephone from the K.S. Hegde Hospital. "By the grace of Allah, I have survived. Fortunately I was on a window seat, 19A of the flight."

Totuttur is a manager of a sporting goods shop in Dubai and was returning home to visit family for a 10-day break. He described his escape: "The right wing was on the ground, but the left wing of the plane was up in the air. Then I saw the plane break into two in the middle. I had very little time. But I jumped out, about eight feet. I had two other people [with me] who did the same.

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