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Tragic touchdown

Published : Jun 18, 2010 00:00 IST

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in Mangalore

Sabrina Nasrin Huq, 23, a Bangladeshi national pursuing her medical internship at Kasturba Hospital in the coastal town of Manipal in Karnataka, is among the eight lucky passengers who survived the disaster that struck Air India Express Flight IX 812 at the Bajpe airport in Mangalore on May 22. The early-morning, low-cost Dubai-Mangalore flight, which overshot the runway before plunging into a ravine and catching fire, was carrying 160 passengers and six crew members.

Sabrina had delayed her departure from Dubai by two days because her friends were not available to drop her off at the Dubai International Airport. It was not her first trip on this route. She had taken the flight of three hours and 45 minutes several times before.

Sabrina recalls that when the captain asked the passengers to fasten their seat belts she realised they were about to touch down. It was going to be 6 a.m. (local time).

The Boeing 737-800's tyres gently touched the tarmac and the aircraft appeared to be slowing down. But suddenly there was acceleration and the plane picked up speed. The plane began shuddering and we knew something was wrong and started screaming. We were thrown back in our seats, and the next second we were hurtling downwards. I heard a noise, then the plane started to come to a halt and in a few seconds the lights went out. There was dead silence. It all happened so fast.

This was when Sabrina says she struggled to stay conscious. I thought I was in a car. I struggled to unfasten my seat belt and then tried to get up. But my right foot was stuck. I managed to pull it out, and then, I don't remember how, but I was either pushed out or fell out of one of the many openings that had sprung up in the plane. There were trees all around. I thought I was dreaming; I was aching all over. Suddenly, realising that the plane could catch fire, I started walking away quickly. After some time I could not walk anymore. I held on to a tree trunk and screamed for help. Then I saw that the plane had caught fire and I heard screams from within.

Sabrina remembers that she was then carried to an ambulance. After that, she says, she found herself in a hospital with a broken left leg, a sprained right ankle, and lacerations on her head, hands and thigh.

The seven other survivors of the national carrier's worst aviation disaster in over a decade had also managed to jump out of the plane, which had split into more than two pieces before bursting into flames after coming to a halt on its belly. So severe and sudden was the intensity of the fire that many of those killed were found with their seat belts still fastened. Most of the passengers had been burnt to death in their seats, with as many as 22 bodies charred beyond recognition so that DNA tests had to be performed by a team summoned from the Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics, Hyderabad.

Sabrina fervently thanks the Almighty for sparing her life. She also attributes her escape to a seat change from 7B to 7A. There was no one in 7A so I moved to the window seat. There was a lady in 7C. She did not survive the crash. And neither did the three-member family that sat in the seats in front of me. I saw a picture of the family in the papers the next morning.

Mangalore resident Joel Pratap D'Souza, who survived the crash, had gone to Dubai to see his sister Jane Priya and also find a job. The 24-year-old made the trip back only to change his visa status as Ducab Company in Dubai had offered him a job as an assistant machinist. Joel, who was in the middle section of the aircraft (seat 23A), says he saw a wide opening in the airframe and managed to tumble out through it. Two other persons followed him, he says from his hospital bed where he is being treated for a suspected spinal injury.

Puttur Ismail Abdulla, a 36-year-old sports shop salesman in Dubai, and Ummer Farook Mohammed, a robust 26-year-old who had just landed a job in Dubai, also talk of hearing a noise, which they claim could have been that of a tyre burst, and then the aircraft hitting something before careening down and coming to a stop. They say they saw smoke emanating from the front sections of the aircraft and a fire starting. Farook, who singed his hands, chest and face, was sitting in the middle section of the plane. He managed to walk, and then crawl away from the crash site and finally scamper up a small cliff and call his sister, who in turn alerted others who were waiting near the arrival lounge unaware of what had happened. The plane was wobbling badly, and then started breaking apart. Through a hole, I saw some trees. I pushed out a man who was in front of me. And though I burnt my hands I was also able to get out through the hole.

Mohammed Usman, a 49-year-old transport operator with a construction firm in Dubai, says that the aircraft had landed normally. Then he heard a loud, unfamiliar sound. The aircraft then veered out of control and from his seat, 19C, he says he saw the wing on his side disappear. Two fellow passengers who were sitting beside him also saw this.

Usman managed to unbuckle his seat belt but not before he suffered some burn injuries. He said he saw people trying in vain to unbuckle their seat belts. A fire had started and I heard women and children screaming.

Seven of the survivors managed to make their way to the Mangalore-Goa railway line, which is around 300 metres away, from where they were taken to hospitals across the city.

The air crash has left scores of shattered lives, wiped out entire families, and turned upside down the destinies of many a family. The traumatised families were faced with the bleak exercise of identifying the bodies. In many cases there was just a body part that was left the dead had to be identified by a talisman, a cross on a chain, rings on the toe or finger, a passport tucked in a pocket, branded shoes, or whatever little was left on the body.

Said Marita D'Souza, whose sister Sarita Philomena D'Souza and brother-in-law Naveen Walter Fernandes perished in the crash: While Naveen's face could be somewhat seen, we were able to only recover my sister's leg, that too after recognising her toe rings. The couple, who worked in a hyper market in Dubai, were coming down to spend time with their four-year-old daughter, Viola, whom they had left behind in Mangalore. The young girl, who was waiting with petals to receive her parents, is in a state of shock.

The distressing task of identifying those killed was further compounded by the multiple claims in the cases of at least three bodies. In the end there were 36 claimants for 22 bodies, necessitating DNA profiling. Patricia D'Souza, whose husband, Ignatius, worked as a cook in a canteen in Abu Dhabi and was killed in the crash, said: We recognised the body, only the left hand was burnt badly, and the post-mortem was also conducted. But then a family from Kasargod also claimed the body. His brother Denny was asked to give a DNA sample. Between sobs she said Ignatius had telephoned her the night before he left and kept saying, I'm coming, I'm coming.

One of the most tragic tales was that of Fouzia, a young bride-to-be from Uppala in Kasargod, Kerala. Her brothers Mohammed Basheer and Abubequer Siddique were to arrive by the ill-fated plane to attend her wedding. Both perished in the crash.

During identification, it was also found that 12 persons were travelling on false passports.

Air India Express, a subsidiary of the government-owned National Aviation Corporation of India Limited (NACIL), the holding company of Air India, is also India's first low-cost international airline. Carved out of Air India's operations in 2004, it has only one class economy. It operates 24 Next Generation' Boeing 737s and caters largely to the Indian workforce in the Gulf. Flight IX 812 was no exception. It was full of expatriates and wannabe expatriates and a sprinkling of businessmen returning to India for a holiday or to visit an ailing relative or attend a wedding or funeral or just to get a work permit visa.

Unsurprisingly, most of the passengers were residents of either Mangalore or other towns in Karnataka's coastal districts of Udupi, Uttara Kannada and Dakshina Kannada. Interestingly, around 40 of those killed were from Kerala's northern districts of Kasargod, Kannur and Malappuram, many of them the sole breadwinners of their families. Most of them were flying to attend weddings, the time of year being the peak of the wedding season in the region.

Mangalore is the nearest international airport for air travellers from the Malabar region. The Kozhikode International Airport at Karipur is located 215 km from Kasargod town, whereas Mangalore is just 50 km away. The relatively cheaper fares of Air India Express have been a boon to the people of the region.

Eyewitness accounts

From early eyewitness accounts, this much was apparent: Flight 812 after landing in clear visibility had overshot Bajpe airport's runway 24. The runway, which was made operational in 2006, is 8,037 feet long and has a sanded runway end safety area of 295 ft. The available evidence was also indicative, though not conclusively, that the pilots Capt. Zlatko Glusica, a British national of Serbian ethnicity and a commander with over 10,000 hours of flying experience, and senior first officer Capt H.S. Ahluwalia (3,650 hours of flying experience) for reasons as yet unknown had attempted to take off again after touching down, perhaps only to realise that there was not enough runway length to do so.

It also appeared (though no pieces of tyre were found on the runway) that the aircraft's nose wheel tyre burst after touchdown, with the aircraft, by now out of control, overshooting the runway. When the pilots attempted to take off again, the aircraft swung to the right (possibly because of the right engine failing). The right wing hit a radio antenna a T'-shaped, frangible component of the airport's Instrument Landing System called a Localiser Antenna.

The aircraft then ploughed through a wall of sandbags and a concrete perimeter fence before plummeting down a wooded ravine and traversed around a hundred metres of undulating forested land until it reached another drop. The steep but short cliff proved no hurdle as the aircraft sailed over it, crossing the narrow Kenjar-Adyapady road and coming to a halt in the adjoining wooded area. The aircraft had by now started to disintegrate and catch fire, having traversed around 500 metres since leaving the tarmac.

Eyewitnesses who arrived at the crash site within minutes of the accident said that the first to arrive on the spot were personnel from the Airports Authority of India (AAI). People near by were alerted to the crash by the heavy white smoke, and some by the noise.

It took more than two hours for the fire/crash tenders to douse the fire. While initially they tried to douse the fire from atop the cliff, they were later able to make a passage through the trees and get closer to the accident site.

The local people did a tremendous job of retrieving many of the bodies, unmindful of the stench of burning flesh. There was no traffic management on the only narrow road that led to the crash site. Ambulances and police vehicles were jostling with two-wheelers for space. A fire-fighting vehicle belonging to the AAI toppled as it was approaching the crash site, giving an indication of just how chaotic the rescue efforts were.

As the plane had crashed in a wooded area, it took 72 hours to find the black box. The orange-coloured (for better visibility) black box, which primarily consists of two separate pieces of equipment the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) and the digital flight data recorder (DFDR) will give investigators definitive clues about what actually went wrong. While the CVR will allow investigators to play back conversations and commands in the cockpit right up to the final moments, the DFDR will have the recordings of over 200 parameters of the aircraft's actual flight, including airspeed, altitude, heading and vertical acceleration, engine speed, temperature, and aircraft pitch.

According to officials from the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), India's civil regulatory authority, analysis of the DFDR's data will be done in the United States at the laboratories of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

U.S. agency to help probe

While a preliminary assessment of the DFDR's data could take a fortnight, the final, conclusive reasons for the crash will take a year to be known. The DGCA investigating team will lean for technical support on representatives from the NTSB, the Federal Aviation Administration (the DGCA's American counterpart) and the aircraft's manufacturer, Boeing. Air India is also conducting an internal probe.

With the total insurance payout for the loss of 158 lives and the destruction of the Boeing 737 and cargo expected to be more than Rs.350 crore, officials said it would take years before all the claims were settled. Besides the compensation of Rs.2 lakh each announced from the Prime Minister's Relief Fund to the next of kin of those killed, Air India has announced an interim compensation of Rs.10 lakh for each of the deceased passengers above 12 years of age. The interim compensation is in partial fulfilment of the obligations under the Montreal Convention (Convention for the Unification of Certain Rules for International Carriage). Full compensation, which could run to Rs.75 lakh to each of those killed, will be made after the airline's claims are settled by the insurers.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jun 18, 2010.)

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