At least 18 people died and 149 were injured after a special Air India Express flight brining home Indians stranded abroad by the COVID-19 pandemic, skidded off the runway at the Kozhikode Interantioanl Airport in Kerala on Friday night, nosedived into a gorge 35 feet below and cracked in two.
After 24 hours since the ill-fated flight overshot the tabletop runway while landing at the airport, the condition of 23 of the 149 injured remains critical, the Kerala government said.
"Earlier, 23 were discharged after being provided initial medical assistance," Kerala chief minsiter Pinarayi Vijayan said.
One person died today, taking the toll in the mishap to 18.
According to a list of the 18 victims released by Malappuram District Collector K Gopalakrishnan, four of the deceased were children " three girls and a one-year old boy " and seven were men and other women. Two girls were aged two and the other was five.
As many as nine of the passengers who lost their lives were from Kozhikode (also known as Calicut) while two hailed from Palakkad and five from Malappuram. The pilot Deepak Sathe and the co-pilot Captain Akhilesh Kumar were the other two victims.
Both the Central and Kerala governments have announced a compensation of Rs 10 lakh each to the families of the deceased.
"The state government has decided to provide a compensation of Rs 10 lakh to the families of those who have lost their lives. The medical expenses of those under treatment will be taken over by the state government," Vijayan told reporters, adding that the state government will take a decision on providing further assistance to help them get their lives back on track if required.
The crucial black box from the Boeing 737 was also recovered and will be taken to Delhi for further investigation, said the Airports Authority of India (AAI).
Plane swayed violently, says survivor
In a telephone interview from his hospital bed, Renjith Panangad, a plumber who was returning home for the first time in three years after losing his job at a construction company in Dubai, told The Associated Press that the plane swayed before the crash and everything went dark.
He said he followed other passengers who crawled their way out of the fuselage through the emergency exit.
"A lot of passengers were bleeding," said Panangad, who escaped without major injuries. "I still can't comprehend what happened. As I am trying to recall what happened, my body is shivering."
He said the pilot made a regular announcement before landing, and moments after the plane hit the runway, it nosedived.
"There was a big noise during the impact and people started screaming," he said.
Security personnel on duty at the Air India Express crash site. ANI
AIE arranges relief flights for passengers
The Air India Express said four crew members of the flight were safe, while the Employees Union of the low-cost carrier, said they were receiving treatment at a hospital for injuries suffered in the mishap. It said families of the deceased pilots have been escorted to Kozhikode.
The airline also said three relief flights had been arranged to assist passengers and their family members affected in the accident of the aircraft which was being operated under the Centre's Vande Bharat Mission to repatriate Indians stranded abroad during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Civil Aviation Minister announces interim relief; black box recovered
Union Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri flew down to Kozhikode and visited the accident site with his ministerial colleague V Muraleedharan and others. The Union minister announced an interim relief of Rs 10 lakh for each of those who died, Rs 2 lakh for the seriously injured and Rs 50,000 for those who suffered minor injuries.
This would be over and above all the other compensations, which might be forthcoming from different agencies, insurance of the aircraft etc, he said.
"I might mention that the Air India aircraft are properly insured and discussions will be made with passengers and their families at the appropriate juncture in line with the Montreal Convention of international civil aviation organisation," Puri said.
He also assured the kin of victims that steps would be taken to get compensation in line with an international convention of International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).
Puri took stock of the relief measures and said he would hold consultations "with senior civil aviation officials and professionals", adding that the reasons for the mishap were being investigated.
He also appealed to the media not to speculate on the cause of the accident, saying that the required information would be retrieved from the black box of the aircraft.
An official of the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) told news agency PTI that the DFDR and CVR, which jointly make up the "black box" in an aircraft, are with the Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau (AAIB) and will be sent to Delhi for further investigation.
The CVR keeps a recording of all the conversations taking place in the cockpit while the DFDR has a record of flight data such as airspeed, altitude and fuel flow. These can help in finding out the cause of the crash, he said.
COVID-19 fears surface
On Saturday, as reports emerged that at least two of the patients in the ill-fated plane were COVID-19 positive, fears over the spread of COVID-19 emerged among those who helped carry out the rescue operations.
State Health Minister KK Shailaja asked all those engaged in rescue operations to go into self-quarantine and get themselves tested.
The Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), too asked its personnel, who it said were among the first responders at the accident site, to go into preventive quarantine.
"We are identifying our personnel, who rescued the passengers who have tested positive for the coronavirus," CISF Special Director General (Airports) MA Ganapathy told news agency PTI.
Around 50 CISF personnel and their family members were involved in the rescue operation, said another official.
Meanwhile,Vijayan also praised the immediate assistance offered by local people and authorities, which ensured minimum loss of lives in a disaster of such a large magnitude.
"Even though 18 precious lives have been lost due to the impact of the crash, the rescue operations were a miraculous work. The general public and the officials played a big role in spearheading the rescue operations," he said.
Earlier, the Kerala chief minister also said that the post mortem process has been expedited despite the COVID-19 threat and is expected to finish before evening.
"All the accident victims will be tested for COVID-19 including those who died in the crash," Vijayan said. He, however, said that so far, only one victim has tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
Pilot used different runway, says AAI
The AAI said that the Air India Express plane had touched down near a taxiway that is around 1,000 metres from the beginning of the runway at the Kozhikode airport. The pilot of the ill-fated flight " IX-1344 " could not sight the runway in the first landing attempt due to heavy rains.
An AAI spokesperson told PTI that runway 28 was in use and in the first landing attempt, the pilot could not sight the runway and requested for runway 10. The visibility was around 2,000 metres, he said.
The civil aviation minister said that the pilot in-command of the crashed Boeing 737 aircraft Deepak Vasant Sathe, a former Wing Commander of the Indian Air Force (IAF), was one of the most experienced commanders with more than 10,000 flying hours and had landed aircraft 27 times at the Karipur airport in the past.
Meanwhile, reports emerged of a notice issued by the DGCA to the director of the Kozhikode airport last year which had citied "various critical safety lapses" including cracks on the runway, water stagnation and excessive rubber deposits.
The DGCA notice was based on inspection conducted after an Air India Express flight coming from Dammam in Saudi Arabia had a "tail strike" while landing at the Calicut (Kozhikode) airport on 2 July last year, an official said.
In a statement on Saturday evening, the DGCA said, "Based on the above findings, a show-cause notice was issued to the airport director at Calicut for non-compliance and advised to take immediate action on findings. The Airport Director, Calicut sent a compliance report on 5 August, 2019. After examination of the compliance report, all the major findings were closed."
Captain Mohan Ranganathan, a civil aviation expert said that he too had flagged concerns over the runway 10 at the airport in a communication to then Civil Aviation Secretary Nasim Zaidi in the aftermath of an Air India Express aircraft crash at Mangalore airport in 2010, which claimed 158 lives.
"...all the flights that land on Runway 10 in the tailwind conditions in rain, are endangering the lives of all on board," Ranganathan had said.
Regarding the Kozhikode airport accident, Ranganathan was quoted by Hindustan Times as saying that the runway has a steep downslope and no safety area.
"The warnings were ignored... in my opinion, it is not an accident but a murder. Their own audits have had flagged safety issues" Ranganathan said, adding that the crash could have been avoided.
Kozhikode airport in Kerala comes under the Airports Authority of India (AAI). The airport has a tabletop runway.
But AAI Chairman Arvind Singh noted that prior to COVID-19, there were around 70 departures as well as 70 arrivals at the Kozhikode airport on a daily basis. After domestic flights resumed on 25 May, there have been 10 departures and 10 arrivals every day. He, however, said that said "corrective action" will be taken after receiving the probe report.
Condolences pour in
Meanwhile, condolences poured in from many countries, including Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Russia and the Maldives. Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa said he was shocked and saddened to hear about the tragic plane crash at Kozhikode.
Russian President Vladimir Putin too conveyed his condolences to President Ram Nath Kovind and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
With inputs from agencies