Investigators have recovered the "black box" flight recorders from an Air India Express plane that crashed in southern India killing at least 18 people, the aviation minister said Saturday.
The plane carrying 190 people crash-landed during bad weather Friday night and tore in two, injuring scores of passengers. The Boeing 737, on a special flight from Dubai to bring back Indians stranded by the coronavirus pandemic, overshot the runway at Kozhikode in Kerala state, plunged down an embankment and broke up.
"Fuel had leaked out so it was a miracle that the plane did not catch fire, the toll could have been much higher," one senior emergency official at the scene said.
Aviation minister Hardeep Singh Puri visited the site Saturday and announced that the flight data and cockpit voice recorders had been found, which will help the investigation into the cause of the crash.
The Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau was conducting the probe, he said. Kozhikode is considered a tricky airport as it has a table-top runway with a steep drop at one end. Kerala has been hit by severe floods in recent days and heavy rains had been falling for several hours at Kozhikode as the jet landed.
Puri put the latest death toll at 18, while authorities said 22 people were in critical condition in hospital.
The fatalities included the two pilots as well as four children.
Passenger Renjith Panangad, 34, recalled the plane touching the ground and then everything went "blank".
"After the crash, the emergency door opened and I dragged myself out somehow," he told AFP from a hospital bed in Kozhikode.
"The front part of the plane was gone – it was completely gone. I don't know how I made it but I'm grateful. I am still shaken."
The impact was so brutal that the nose of the Boeing 737 finished about 20 metres (22 yards) from the back half of the jet.
"All that we could hear were screams all around. People were soaked in blood everywhere, some had fractures, some were unconscious," said local resident Fazal Puthiyakath who was among the first at the scene.
Another survivor Muhammed Junaid said that when the aircraft careened off the runway and plunged off a hill, he thought it was the end, fearing a fire would break out and engulf him.
"A cabin crew from the back assured us that there was no need to worry about a fire. She said that the engine was off," said Shafaf, who suffered only bruises on his nose and feet. As he sat dazed near the tail of the wrecked aircraft, Junaid, too, said he remembered cabin crew calming down passengers and helping those scrunched between mangled seats.
After a 45-minute wait, during which emergency workers helped passengers out of the wrecked front of the plane, Junaid and the rest at the back were helped down. Now resting at home and awaiting a coronavirus test, Junaid said he wants to stay away from aircraft.
"I am really afraid," he said. "I don't want to fly again."
"Broke in two"
India media quoted air traffic control officials and a flight tracker website as showing the Boeing 737 twice circled and started to land before it crashed at the third attempt.
The jet repeatedly jumped up and down in buffeting winds before the landing, survivors told Indian television.
Local taxi drivers and traders joined airport rescue staff to help free people from the wreckage in the dark and wet.
Several people on board had to be cut out with special equipment. It took three hours to clear all the injured and bodies, officials said.
Taxis ferried many of the injured to hospitals.
"Locals rushed to the spot after hearing the noise," one rescue worker said. "People came in cars, messages were being sent on WhatsApp... that people were needed to help.
"At first, people took the injured to the hospitals in their cars. Then the emergency services took over."
One of the infants died in a car before the child could receive treatment.