SADDA BATOLNI, Pakistan (AFP) – A Pakistani aircraft carrying 47 people issued a Mayday call before losing radar contact and crashing into a mountain, killing everyone on board, authorities said, as they began collecting DNA on Thursday (Dec 8) to identify victims.
The Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) flight smashed into a hillside in the country’s north after one of its two turboprop engines failed while travelling from the city of Chitral to the capital Islamabad.
It burst into flames upon impact and parts of the wreckage were found hundreds of metres away from the main crash site in Abbottabad district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
The pilot of the ATR-42 turboprop aircraft contacted ground authorities after one engine failed and issued a Mayday call at 4.14 pm local time (1114 GMT), Azam Saigol, the airline’s chairman, told a news conference Wednesday in Islamabad.
It began descending a minute later before disappearing from radar at 4.16pm.
“This plane was technically sound and was checked in October,” he said, adding the captain had flown more than 12,000 hours and the aircraft was nine years old.
“Our focus now is to retrieve all the dead bodies,” he added, vowing a full investigation.
PIA spokesman Danyal Gilani said the aircraft’s black box has been recovered but “it will take time to ascertain a reason of the crash”.
An earlier death toll of 48 has been revised down to 47.
The dead included Junaid Jamshed, one of the country’s best loved singers who later became a Muslim evangelist, as well as senior local officials and three foreigners – two Austrians and one Chinese.
Dozens of friends and family members gathered at hospitals in Islamabad and Rawalpindi on Thursday to try to identify the badly charred and dismembered remains.
Relatives have been asked to submit DNA samples to help the identification process.
“My friend died in the plane crash, it is a great tragedy for me as he was my childhood friend,” said Murad Khan from Chitral.
“His relatives have not arrived yet as I work in Islamabad so I am here to receive his body. I don’t know if I will see his face for the last time or not.”
Raja Aamir, whose mother died in the crash, said: “The sudden death of our mother is great loss for our family – 40 to 50 members of my family have arrived here in Islamabad we don’t know where we will stay.”
Six of the victims had already been identified through fingerprints, according to Ali Baz, an official at the Ayub Medical Complex.
Senior aviation officials on Thursday pushed back against allegations that a maintenance lapse had caused the accident.
“One engine of the plane failed after its takeoff from Chitral and the pilot informed us about that in his call to the control. The plane, however, was cleared for flight and that’s why it flew. Had it not been cleared, it would not fly,” said Muhammad Irfan Elahi, a top aviation official.
Rescuers, including hundreds of villagers, had overnight pulled badly burned remains from the smouldering wreckage of the aircraft near the village of Saddha Batolni.
“We put into sacks whatever we could find... and carried them down to the ambulance,” a villager in his thirties, who declined to give his name, told AFP.
A senior rescue official on the site who requested anonymity added: “The villagers told us that the plane was shaky before it crashed. It was about to hit the village but it seems that the pilot managed to drag the plane towards the hills.”
Wednesday’s crash was the fourth deadliest on Pakistani soil.
The country’s worst air disaster was in 2010, when an Airbus 321 crashed into the hills outside Islamabad while about to land, killing all 152 on board – an incident blamed on pilot error.