At least 68 people were killed on Sunday when a domestic flight crashed in Pokhara in Nepal, the country’s Civil Aviation Authority said, in the worst air crash in three decades in the small Himalayan nation.
Hundreds of rescue workers were scouring the hillside where the Yeti Airlines flight, carrying 72 people from the capital Kathmandu, went down.
Local TV showed rescue workers scrambling around broken sections of the aircraft. Some of the ground near the crash site was scorched, with licks of flames visible.
Police official Ajay K.C. said rescue workers were having difficulty reaching the site in a gorge between two hills near the tourist town’s airport.
The crash is Nepal’s deadliest since 1992, the Aviation Safety Network database showed, when a Pakistan International Airlines Airbus A300 crashed into a hillside upon approach to Kathmandu, killing all 167 people on board.
The craft made contact with the airport from Seti Gorge at 10:50am (05:05am GMT), the aviation authority said in a statement. “Then it crashed.”
Those on the twin-engine ATR 72 aircraft included three infants and three children, the Civil Aviation Authority’s statement said.
Passengers included five Indians, four Russians and one Irish, two South Korean, one Australian, one French and one Argentine national.
“Half of the plane is on the hillside,” said Arun Tamu, a local resident, who told Reuters he reached the site minutes after the plane went down.“ “The other half has fallen into the gorge of the Seti river.”
Khum Bahadur Chhetri said he watched from the roof of his house as the flight approached.
“I saw the plane trembling, moving left and right, and then suddenly it nose-dived and it went into the gorge,” Chhetri told Reuters, adding that local residents took two passengers to a hospital.
Pokhara Airport spokesman Anup Joshi said the aircraft crashed as it approached the airport, adding that the “plane cruised at 12,500 feet and was on a normal descent.” The weather on Sunday was clear.
The government has set up a panel to investigate the cause of the crash and it is expected to report within 45 days, the finance minister, Bishnu Paudel, told reporters.
Nepal Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal has called an emergency cabinet meeting after the plane crash.
The journey to Pokhara — Nepal’s second largest city tucked under the picturesque Annapurna mountain range — from the capital Kathmandu is one of the Himalayan country’s most popular tourist routes, with many preferring a short flight instead of a six-hour-long drive through hilly roads.
‘15 years old’ aircraft
Flight tracking website FlightRadar24 said on Twitter the Yeti Airlines aircraft was 15 years old and equipped with an old transponder with unreliable data.
It added that the last signal from the transponder was received at 05:12am GMT at an altitude of 2,875 feet above mean sea level. Pokhara Airport is located at about 2,700-2,800 feet above mean sea level, according to FlightRadar24.
The ATR72 is a widely used twin-engine turboprop plane manufactured by a joint venture of Airbus and Italy’s Leonardo. Yeti Airlines has a fleet of six ATR72-500 planes, according to its website.
“ATR specialists are fully engaged to support both the investigation and the customer,” the company said on Twitter, adding that its first thoughts were for those affected, after having been informed of the accident.
Airbus and Leonardo did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Series of crashes
At least 309 people have died since 2000 in plane or helicopter crashes in Nepal — home to eight of the world’s 14th highest mountains, including Everest — where the weather can change suddenly and make for hazardous conditions.
The European Union has banned Nepali airlines from its airspace since 2013, citing safety concerns.
On its website, Yeti describes itself as a leading domestic carrier. Its fleet consists of six ATR 72-500s, including the one that crashed. It also owns Tara Air, and the two together offer the “widest network” in Nepal, the company says.