• 85 deaths confirmed; authorities anticipate rise in toll
• Pilot made mayday call, reporting engine failure
• PIA CEO says aircraft was technically sound
KARACHI: At least 85 people died when a Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) flight carrying 91 passengers and eight crewmembers crashed into a thickly-populated neighbourhood while trying to land at the Karachi airport on Friday afternoon.
At least two passengers, namely Mohammad Zubair and Bank of Punjab president Zafar Masud, miraculously survived the crash and were taken to hospitals, as rescue work after firefighting operations continued into the night.
The Sindh health authorities are trying to ascertain the identity of the deceased persons, as officials have yet to confirm how many of them were residents of the Model Colony, where the plane crashed, passengers and crewmembers. The officials said DNA samples were being collected from the bodies for identification, as many of them were charred beyond recognition.
It was 2.39pm when the PIA flight PK-8303 (Aircraft Airbus A-320, registration AP-BLD) carrying passengers from Lahore to Karachi crashed into the houses situated in Jinnah Garden (a Model Colony locality between the airport and Malir cantonment), the officials said.
Witnesses said the aircraft had already caught fire before it came down with a bang. The pilot could be heard making mayday call in his last conversation with air-traffic controller just before the crash.
Footage that went viral on social media and later picked by TV channels showed plumes of black smoke rising from the residential area. Flames rising from the top-floor of a house could be seen in another clip. In one video, area people were seen rescuing a person, who was later identified as BoP president Zafar Masud, who miraculously survived the crash.
The area presented the look of a war-torn site with the aircraft’s smouldering wreckage lying along with the rubble of damaged houses and burning vehicles.
Firefighters and rescuers as well as security forces reached the scene. However, the presence of a large number of onlookers, narrow streets, broken electric poles and overhead wires made the rescue job difficult. Heavy machinery was sent to the area to clear the rubble of the houses and search for bodies and survivors underneath.
Edhi and Chhipa ambulances shifted the deceased and the injured to different hospitals. The Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre received 53 bodies, while the Civil Hospital Karachi got 32 bodies. The health department spokesperson, Meeran Yousuf, confirmed to Dawn that the death toll was 85 till midnight, while all the eight injured were area residents.
In a video statement, PIA CEO Air Marshal Arshad Malik said that the pilot of the A-320 flight coming from Lahore to Karachi was heard telling about a technical problem in his last conversation. “He was told both runways are ready for landing, but the pilot decided to go round. Why he decided this and what was the technical problem we will look into it,” Air Marshal Malik said.
The pilot of the ill-fated aircraft was also heard telling the air-traffic controller he lost “the engine” and making a mayday call in radio conversation with the control tower. He was asked to confirm whether he was belly landing and told that two runways were available.
Army troops and its firefighters were among the first responders as the site of the crash was close to the garrison.
Inter-Services Public Relations chief Maj Gen Babar Iftikhar said in a tweet that the Quick Reaction Force of the army and the Rangers reached the site and were carrying out relief and rescue efforts along with the civil administration.
He also tweeted that army’s aviation helicopters were also part of rescue efforts and were assessing damage. “Urban Search & Rescue Teams are being sent on site for rescue efforts,” he said.
The PIA CEO later told a presser in Karachi in the evening that it could take two to three days to complete the rescue operation at the scene of crash, where surface was still hot and a cooling process was going on late in the evening.
He claimed that the aircraft was technically sound and only a probe would help find what had actually happened. PIA would not be part of the probe committee, he said.
The incident sparked a debate within PIA as well as aviation circles as to whether or not PIA was following international safety standards and procedure.
A probe has been assigned to the Safety Investigation Board — an independent body that falls within the aviation division — as per standard operating procedures and only its report would determine the exact causes of the crash and fix responsibility.
SIB investigators visited the site and collected important evidence including the black box.
The ill-fated aircraft was flown by Captain Sajjad Gul, who was among the deceased. He was married and had four kids. He was a resident of Lahore.
The Pakistan Airlines’ Pilots Association (Palpa) expressed deep sorrow over the loss of their beloved and experienced crew members, especially Capt Gul who it said had 24 years of service experience and 15,000-plus flying hours and considered among the most experienced pilots of the airline.
Published in Dawn, May 23rd, 2020