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At Least 349 Are Killed in Collision

By Kenneth J. Cooper
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 13 1996; Page A01

Two commercial airliners from Saudi Arabia and Kazakstan collided in clouds near New Delhi Tuesday night with a burst of fire, killing at least 349 persons in the deadliest midair crash in history.

The Saudi Arabian Airlines Boeing 747, carrying 312 passengers and crew bound for Saudi Arabia, had just taken off from New Delhi's Indira Gandhi International Airport at about 6:30 p.m. when it collided with a Kazak Airlines Ilyushin Il-76 about 60 miles to the west. Thirty-eight persons were reported aboard the Kazakh plane, which was arriving from Shymkent in the former Soviet republic of Kazakstan.

A local police commander, Virendra B. Singh, said one person may have survived the unusual collision of two commercial jets. About 200 bodies were taken to a local hospital, and more were scattered within a one-mile radius of the smoldering Saudi jet in this small village, Singh said early this morning.

If all 350 persons reported aboard the two jets were killed, the collision would be the third-deadliest plane crash in history. It was the worst midair collision, surpassing the 1976 collision of a British Trident and a Yugoslav DC-9 over Zagreb, Yugoslavia, that killed 176.

Both shattered planes landed away from populated areas in open fields about seven miles apart, apparently causing no deaths or serious injuries among people on the ground.

Witnesses said the airliners collided in a cloud, suggesting that the pilots could not see each other's planes in time to avoid a crash. "I saw a light in the clouds. . . . I could see it coming toward my village," said Mahendra Singh, elected leader of a nearby settlement. The 747 "caught fire on the rear part. [The planes] collided in the clouds."

The American pilot of a C-141 U.S. Air Force transport plane who was bringing in supplies for the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi witnessed the crash's fiery aftermath from 20,000 feet.

"We noticed out of our right-hand [side of the plane] a large cloud lit up with an orange glow, from within the clouds," the 30-year-old captain, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told news service reporters in a conference call from the Indian capital. "The glow intensity of the cloud became dimmer and the two fireballs descended and became fireballs on the ground."

After takeoff, the Saudi plane had been cleared to climb to 14,000 feet, while the Kazak aircraft was authorized to descend to 15,000 feet, H.S. Khola, the director general of civil aviation, told the Associated Press. Suddenly, Khola said at a news conference, "the radar blip of both aircraft was lost."

The Indian government ordered an inquiry into the collision, aviation officials said.

Singh, the police official, said that civil aviation authorities instructed police officers not to search in the dark for the planes' flight recorders, which could provide more specific information about the cause of the collision.

Some witnesses compared the sound of the collision to an explosion of pressurized cooking-gas cylinders. Local residents immediately rushed to the scene to help any survivors and offer help to police and firefighters who removed bodies. Some bodies were in pieces, others were burned beyond recognition, and a few could still be identified.

Singh said that three people with faint heartbeats were taken to a local hospital, where two died. He was uncertain whether the third was alive.

The fuselage of the Saudi airliner dug a trench about 60 yards long and 15 feet deep into unplanted farmland, where chick peas and mustard for cooking oil are grown in season. The field presented a gruesome scene this morning, with dismembered and charred bodies spread among twisted pieces of the wreckage. Severed limbs and charred patches of flesh covered some areas.

"I've never seen anything like this -- so much death," said Rakesh Agarwal, a college student from Charkhi Dadri, the nearest large town. "I could not react. People were just too shocked to react."

Villagers said that the Saudi pilot appeared to have kept control of the 747 after the collision. The pilot then seemed to guide the burning jumbo jet into the open field. "It's the pilot's mercy that he ensured the villagers were not harmed," said Jeet Ram Gupta, a lawyer from Charkhi Dadri.

The Kazak plane fell near Birhod village, about seven miles from here.

Officials told news services that there were 229 passengers and 23 crew members aboard Saudi Arabian Airlines Flight 763, which was bound bound for Dhahran and Jiddah. Middle Eastern news reports said most of the passengers were Indians and Nepalese, and that some were Europeans.

Kazak Airlines Flight 1907 carried 28 passengers and 10 crew, according to transport officials in the Central Asian state who were quoted by news services. It had been chartered by a company in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, and most of the passengers aboard were Kyrgyz.

Boeing 747s were involved in the two deadliest air disasters. In 1977, a collision on the ground of two Boeing 747s, operated by Pan American and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, killed 582 in the Canary Islands. In 1985, 520 died when a Japan Air Lines 747 crashed into a mountain.

Special correspondent Rama Lakshmi contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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