At least 18 people, including both pilots, were killed and 123 injured after an Air India Express plane with more than 190 on board skidded off the runway on Friday at the Karipur airport in Kozhikode in Kerala.
The Superintendent of Police of Malappuram said 16 of the 123 are seriously wounded.
The plane, part of the Vande Bharat Mission to repatriate Indian nationals from overseas during the coronavirus lockdown, skidded off the tabletop runway and fell into a 35-feet deep valley, breaking into two portions.
Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri said he is deeply "anguished and distressed" at the accident and that relief teams from Air India and Airports Authority of India (AAI) have been dispatched from Delhi and Mumbai.
"All efforts are being made to help passengers. A formal enquiry will be conducted by AAIB (Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau)," he said on Twitter.
Twenty-four ambulances and fire tenders have been rushed to the airport. Two teams of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) comprising 60 personnel -- one from Mallapuram and the other from Wayanad -- have also been dispatched with first aid and electrical equipment to cut through the wreckage.
"We must remember that it is a tabletop runway at Kozhikode. There seems to have been injuries among all the passengers and some of them are unconscious," said NDRF Director General SN Pradhan.
According to officials of the Kerala Police, scores of people have been reported injured and at least 100 shifted to various hospitals nearby. It had been raining heavily at the time of the accident.
"We are still searching for around 100 people," said officials, adding that a shortage of torches and incessant rainfall were causing the rescue process to halt.
"Air India Express flight IX 1344 operated by B737 aircraft from Dubai to Calicut overshot runway at Kozhikode at 1941 hours tonight. No fire reported at the time of landing," Air India Express said in a statement. "There are 174 passengers, 10 infants, two pilots and five cabin crew on board the aircraft."
"Due to crash landing of the flight, it may affect the network but the Vande Bharat Mission continues," the airline added.
India's top aviation body, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), has ordered a detailed inquiry into the matter. It said the plane broke into "two pieces" after landing at the airport.
The regulator said the flight -- IX 1344 -- continued running to the end of the runway amid heavy rain and "fell down in the valley and broke down in two pieces".
"The aircraft didn’t land properly. It was raining heavily, it then skid off the runway and fell into a 35-ft valley. Two dead is what we know as per initial reports but the rescue operation is on," DGCA Director Arun Kumar told CNN-News18. "We are ascertaining the situation."
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said he has instructed the police and fire force to take urgent action. "Have also directed the officials to make necessary arrangements for rescue and medical support," he added in a tweet.
The CM also said that minister AC Moideen will lead the rescue efforts at the Kozhikode International Airport. Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to Vijayan on phone about the crash where he was informed that a team of officials, including the Kozhikode and Malappuram District Collectors and Inspector General IG Ashok Yadav, have arrived at the airport and are participating in the rescue operation, said the Kerala Chief Minister's Office (CMO) in a statement. Tweeting about the incident, Modi expressed anguish at the loss of lives.
The Kozhikode Collector said relatives of passengers onboard the flight can contact the following helpline for inquiries: 0495-2376901.
Kerala Health Minister KK Shailaja said all 108 ambulances in Kozhikode and Malappuram are being rushed to the airport. The Government Hospital in Kozhikode is being readied to receive casualties and we have also reached out to Aster MIMS, she added.
Former Minister of State for Tourism Alphons KJ said it was the second tragedy of the day after at least 15 people lost their lives in a landslide in Idukki district.
The Air India Express is a wholly owned subsidiary of Air India and it has only B737 aircraft in its fleet.
It is learnt that pilot-in-command Deepak Sathe died during the accident. He was a former Wing Commander of the Indian Air Force (IAF). He had served at the IAF's flight testing establishment.
Scheduled international passenger flights continue to remain suspended in India since March 23 amid the coronavirus pandemic. But since May 6, special repatriation flights have been operated by Air India and Air India Express under the Vande Bharat Mission to help stranded people reach their destinations. Private carriers have also operated a certain number of flights under this mission.
A spokesperson for the Air India Express said that help centres are being set up at Sharjah and Dubai for affected people. "We regret that there has been an incident regarding our aircraft VT GHK, operating IX 1344," the spokesperson added.
The Indian consulates in Dubai and Sharjah have activated five helpline numbers to provide information to the family members of the flight.
"We pray for the wellbeing of passengers and crew and will keep you updated as and when we receive further updates. Our helplines +97156 5463903, +971543090572, +971543090571, +971543090575," said Aman Puri, Consul General of India.
The helpline number to call in Sharjah for updates is +97165970303.
He also said the Indian consulate will be available for any assistance it may be able to render at this time of grief.
(With inputs from agencies)