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Survivors recount frantic efforts to escape deadly India plane crash: "I don't know how I made it"

At least 17 killed in Air India plane crash
At least 17 killed in Air India plane crash 01:18

Survivors of an Air India express plane crash say the jetliner swayed violently as it approached a hilltop runway soaked by monsoon rain. Moments later, the special return flight for Indians stranded abroad by the pandemic skidded off, nosedived and cracked in two, leaving at least 18 dead and more than 120 injured.

Among the injured on Friday night, at least 15 were in critical condition, said Abdul Karim, a senior police officer in southern Kerala state. The dead included both pilots of the Air India Express flight, the airline said in a statement, adding that the four cabin crew were safe.

CBS News  has confirmed the captain of the flight was Deepak Vasant Sathe, a former test pilot in the Indian Air Force. 

The 2-year-old Boeing 737-800 flew from Dubai to Kozhikode, also called Calicut, in Kerala. There were 174 adult passengers, 10 infants, two pilots and four cabin crew on board.

A security official inspects the site where a passenger plane crashed when it overshot the runway at the Calicut International Airport in Karipur
A security official inspects the site where a passenger plane crashed when it overshot the runway at the Calicut International Airport in Karipur, in the southern state of Kerala, India, August 8, 2020. STRINGER / REUTERS

In a telephone interview from his hospital bed, Renjith Panangad, a plumber who was returning home for the first time in three years after losing his job at a construction company in Dubai, said the plane swayed before the crash and everything went dark.

He said he followed other passengers who crawled their way out of the fuselage through the emergency exit.

"A lot of passengers were bleeding," said Panangad, who escaped without major injuries. "I still can't comprehend what happened. As I am trying to recall what happened, my body is shivering."

He said the pilot made a regular announcement before landing, and moments after the plane hit the runway, it nosedived.

"There was a big noise during the impact and people started screaming," he said.

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."

Video posted to social media showed the aftermath of the crash with fire hoses being sprayed on the aircraft. 

 As the rain stopped Saturday morning, searchers recovered a flight data recorder as the Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau started work on the wreckage. Air India Express said its teams also reached Calicut to support and assist families of the victims.

The wreckage of the plane was resting below a flat hilltop, its nose crashed through a wall. The aircraft's fuselage was split in two and cables dangled from the wreckage and luggage and seats were strewn around.

A similar tragedy was narrowly avoided at the same airport a year ago, when an Air India Express flight suffered a tail strike upon landing. None of the 180 passengers on that flight was injured.

Kozhikode's 2,850-meter (9,350-foot) runway is on a flat hilltop with deep gorges on either side ending in a 34-meter (112-foot) drop.

Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep S. Puri said in a statement that the flight "overshot the runway in rainy conditions and went down" the slope, breaking into two pieces upon impact.

Questions dogging investigators would include not only the aircraft, weather and pilots but also the runway itself. Its end safety area was expanded in 2018 to accommodate wide-body aircraft.

The runway end safety area meets United Nations international civil aviation requirements, but the U.N. agency recommends a buffer that is 150 meters (492 feet) longer than that at Kozhikode airport, according to Harro Ranter, chief executive of the Aviation Safety Network online database.

The Press Trust of India news agency reported that the country's aviation regulator had sought an explanation from the director of the Kozhikode airport in 2019 on finding "various critical safety lapses," which included cracks on the runway, water stagnation and excessive rubber deposits.

Officials from the aviation regulator said it was too early to tell at this point whether the accident was a result of a technical error or human error.

Dubai-based aviation consultant Mark Martin said annual monsoon conditions appeared to be a factor, though it was too early to be certain of the cause.

India Plane Crash Lands
The Air India Express flight that skidded off a runway while landing at the airport in Kozhikode, Kerala state, India, Friday, Aug. 7, 2020. / AP

"Low visibility, wet runway, low cloud base, all leading to very poor braking action is what looks like led to where we are at the moment with this crash," Martin said, calling for the European Aviation Safety Agency and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to assist with the Indian government's investigation.

Kerala state Health Minister KK Shailaja asked local residents who joined the rescue effort to go into quarantine as a precautionary measure. The survivors were being tested for the virus, officials said.

The Air India Express flight was part of the Indian government's special repatriation mission to bring Indian citizens back to the country, officials said. All of the passengers were returning from the Gulf region, authorities said. Regular commercial flights have been halted in India because of the coronavirus outbreak.

The passenger manifest of the flight, a copy of which was seen by CBS News, showed that a large number of passengers were stranded tourists and workers reuniting with their families after months away.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted that he was "pained by the plane accident in Kozhikode," and that he had spoken to Kerala's top elected official.

Air India Express is a subsidiary of Air India.

The last major plane crash in India was in 2010 when an Air India Express plane from Dubai to Mangalore overshot the runway and burst into flames. The crash killed 158 people and left eight survivors.

The worst air disaster in India was on Nov. 12, 1996, when a Saudi Arabian Airlines flight collided midair with a Kazakhastan Airlines Flight near Charki Dadri in Haryana state, killing all 349 on board the two planes.

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