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All 22 passengers found dead in Nepali plane crash in the Himalayas

A Tara Air plane with the tail number 9N-AET in Simikot, Nepal, in December. (Madhu Thapa/Reuters)
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KATHMANDU, Nepal — Search-and-rescue officials in Nepal recovered all of the bodies at the site of a plane crash in the Himalayan Mountains by Tuesday, two days after the twin-propeller plane carrying 22 people went missing shortly after takeoff.

Authorities had little hope of finding any survivors after finding the plane shattered against a rocky slope near the town of Jomsom, in Nepal’s remote Mustang district. The final body was recovered Tuesday morning, the Nepali Civil Aviation Authority said.

The plane carried four Indian nationals, two Germans and 13 Nepalis, along with three crew members, according to Tara Air, the Kathmandu-based carrier. The DHC-6-300 Twin Otter was flying from Pokhara, a tourist hub in central Nepal, to Jomsom when it struck a mountainside at 14,500 feet, the Civil Aviation Authority said. A Tara Air plane flying the same route — which cuts through a high-altitude valley — crashed under similar circumstances in 2016, killing all 23 people aboard.

An army spokesman posted a photo of the crash site on Twitter on Monday that showed the mountain face strewn with what appeared to be passengers’ personal belongings and debris, including a broken wing displaying the Tara Air aircraft number 9N-AET in green lettering.

Some photos showed rescue personnel sifting through the wreckage in thick fog. The search-and-rescue mission was stalled by bad weather on Sunday, and the crash site was only found Monday.

Narendra Shahi, a mountaineering guide who was part of the search team, said the effort had been hampered by frequently changing and “challenging” weather, including sudden rains.

“The plane and bodies — everything was found broken in parts,” he said, adding that there were no signs of burns on bodies at the wreckage site.

The aircraft went missing on Sunday shortly after taking off from Pokhara, in central Nepal, at 9:55 a.m. It was supposed to land roughly 20 minutes later at Jomsom, near Nepal’s border with Tibet. The plane made its last contact with Jomsom Airport at 10:07 a.m., Tara Air said.

Jomsom, situated at an altitude of about 9,000 feet, is a popular destination for trekkers and pilgrims. It hosts the nearest airport to the Muktinath temple — a holy site for Buddhists and Hindus — and the start of trekking trails that wind past snow-capped Himalayan peaks.

Twenty-three people died in 2016 when a Twin Otter aircraft operated by Tara Air and flying the same Pokhara-to-Jomsom route crashed and was later found near a village about 30 miles south of Jomsom. Investigators determined that the pilot flew into dense clouds, disregarded audio warnings and became disoriented before veering into a mountain.

At least 49 dead in Nepal after plane crashes on landing, officials say

Amit Singh, the former head of safety for AirAsia and the chief pilot trainer for IndiGo, said air routes near the Nepali capital, Kathmandu, have navigation aids that guide modern planes equipped with advanced instruments, but the northern route to Jomsom requires pilots to fly by hand, using their own eyesight. Pilots are supposed to turn back if they cannot see the terrain, Singh added, but clouds can suddenly form in the area and pilots sometimes disregard protocols because they are under pressure to complete a scheduled flight.

They assume, ‘After a few seconds we’ll be out of the clouds,’” said Singh, who now heads Safety Matters, a nonprofit in India. “If you look at the 2016 accident, this looks like a carbon copy.”

Nepali airlines, including Tara Air, have had a checkered safety record. Other than the 2016 accident, another Twin Otter plane operated by Tara crashed in the country’s eastern mountains in 2010, killing 22. In 2012, a plane flown by the now-defunct Agni Air carrier crashed on the Pokhara-Jomsom route, killing 15.

In 2019, Tara Air’s owner, Ang Chhiring Sherpa, died in a helicopter crash along with senior Nepali officials overseeing tourism and aviation.

The International Civil Aviation Organization, a U.N. agency, audited Nepal’s civil aviation industry in 2017 and found that the country scored below the global average in investigating accidents. Nepali airlines are banned from flying in the airspace of the European Union because of “a lack of safety oversight by the aviation authorities” there.

Pannett reported from Sydney and Shih from New Delhi. Annabelle Timsit in London and Miriam Berger in Washington contributed to this report.