ISLAMABAD, April 20: The calm of Friday evening in the capital was shattered by a plane crash and the news of 127 deaths, less than two years after a similar tragedy in the city.
The weather once again was seen as the immediate cause, once again the aircraft belonged to a private airline and once again it had reached Islamabad from Karachi and was preparing to land.
Bhoja Air’s Boeing 737-200 lost contact with Air Traffic Control after 6.40pm as it was trying to land at Benazir Bhutto International Airport. The weather was bad and parts of the city were experiencing rain and lightning. Some officials went so far as to call it a hailstorm.
“A passenger plane crashed during a hailstorm at 7.10am,” said an official of the CDA’s Emergency and Disaster Management Directorate.
The aircraft crashed near Karal Chowk in Rawalpindi in a residential area some 10 kilometres or so from the runway. It was a rural area with small houses; the density of houses was not as thick as in urban areas. In the darkness of the night, it was still possible to make out wheat fields in the vicinity of the crash.
“Nobody survived,” said Mohammad Asif Majeed, director of the disaster management directorate, who was leading one of the initial rescue teams that arrived at the site. The 127 people on board included nine crew members. “It crashed on a clutch of houses in a village,” he added.
When the news first broke on TV channels, it was not clear where the crash took place or whether it was a passenger plane or not. However, it soon became clear that the tragic accident had claimed a passenger plane of Bhoja Airlines.
The airline had recently restarted its operations in the country and this was its first flight from Karachi to Islamabad. The captain, Noorullah Afridi, had recently joined the airline, according to some reports.
Within minutes of the crash, rescue teams of the military, police, local authorities as well as fire brigade were headed for the crash site as were journalists and distraught relatives.
It took them over 30 minutes to reach the spot because of rush and the weather.
There was a traffic jam at the Airport Chowk close to the crash site. According to one journalist, many of the visitors at the airport also headed to the crash site upon hearing the news, which added to the crush of humanity there and made the rescue operation more difficult.
“My family is there. I want to go there,” said a weeping Azhar, a young man in his late 20s whose family was on board the plane. He was headed for the crash site.
There was absolute chaos as police blocked the entry to the single road that led to the site.
“When the plane crashed there was fire everywhere. It continued for an hour,” said Raja Ali Abbasi, a villager at the site. A fire department official said the fire was extinguished in around 45 minutes, adding that “the fire caused more damage”.
It was impossible to determine how much damage was caused to the houses that the plane crashed on. But initial reports suggested that no inhabitants of the area were seriously hurt or killed. However, their houses were damaged and the residents were stunned to witness body parts and machinery pieces rain on them. According to police, about 50 houses were damaged. It did not appear that any intact body was recovered from the crash site.
As had happened at the crash site of the Airblue aircraft on July 28, 2010, the various rescue teams did not coordinate with each other and neither were they well equipped. For instance, for the first couple of hours, none of the rescue teams had any searchlight. People used car headlights and small torches and even cellphone torches to make their way around.
At one stage, Rawalpindi’s 1122 officials refused to allow the Islamabad administration to lift bodies from the site. Hot words were exchanged before a third rescue team mediated between the two and soothed nerves.
Investigators in plainclothes were also present at the site, taking pictures.
The dark and the rainy weather made the rescue task next to impossible. When finally the body parts were packed into sacks and placed in ambulances that were heading back, some of them got stuck on the muddy track. “They placed four to six sacks in each ambulance,” said an eyewitness.
The ambulances began to reach Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (PIMS) by about 10 at night. The hospital had been put on alert since the news of the crash came.
Having learnt from their experience with the 2010 crash, the local authorities had hired a cold storage as the PIMS mortuary would run out of space.
Deputy Commissioner Islamabad Amir Ahmed Ali said the medico-legal examination and identification of the body parts would be carried out at PIMS. “DNA tests will also be conducted,” he said, adding that a cold storage had been hired for the purposes.
“We have a huge hall where the bodies will be placed for the time being,” a senior hospital official told Dawn.
“It will take at least three to four days before we can clear the area. And the investigation will have to wait till Saturday morning,” said an army official heading a rescue team.
Late at night, the flight data recorder had been recovered from the crash site and an inquiry into the incident had been ordered that was to be led by Group Captain Mujahidul Islam, head of Safety Investigation Board, CAA.
Two operation rooms were set up at the Benazir Bhutto International Airport and Jinnah International Airport, Karachi, to provide information to the relatives.
People in the crash
A newly-married couple, whose wedding took place last month and who were on their way to Islamabad for their honeymoon, were also killed in the crash. Another passenger, Qamar Aftab, was on his way to Islamabad to attend the marriage ceremony of his brother-in-law.
According to military officials, Station Commander Officer, Hyderabad, Brig Javed Akhter, his wife, Brig (retd) Mohammad Anwar Khan and Squadron Leader Usman Rehman who was posted at Malir, Karachi, were also among those killed.
Within hours of the tragedy, condolences messages also started pouring in from all over.
President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani expressed deep grief over the tragic plane crash.
The prime minister ordered the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to gear up all its resources for rescue operation.
Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh also expressed deep grief over the tragic air crash. In a message to Mr Gilani, he conveyed his deepest condolences to the families of those who lost their lives.
“I pray that the Almighty will grant them the strength to bear their loss. Our thought and prayers are with the people of Pakistan in this time of grief,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Mohammad Asghar and Amir Yasin)
PIA extends help
THE PIA announced late on Friday night it was operating a special flight (PK-300) to fly to Islamabad free of cost one family member of each person who was aboard the crashed plane. The flight was scheduled to leave Karachi at 7am.
- By Munawer Azeem and Imran Ali Teepu