Pakistan plane crash leaves grim task: Identifying victims from DNA

Army troops carry the coffin of a victim during a funeral the day after the crash. PHOTO: AFP
Pakistan officials visit the scene of the crash. PHOTO: AFP

KARACHI, PAKISTAN (NYTIMES) - The bodies were pulled one by one from the ruins of damaged buildings and the smoldering wreckage of the Pakistan International Airlines plane that had crashed a day earlier into a crowded neighbourhood of Karachi: 97 of them by Saturday (May 23).

Many were charred beyond recognition, leaving families - some clutching pictures of their loved ones - to depend on DNA results from a laboratory to identify those they had lost.

Most of the relatives had spent the night before at the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre, the city's largest government hospital, and on Saturday in hot weather at the crash site in the Model Colony neighbourhood, waiting for the grim word.

To help with the identifications, DNA samples from relatives of 40 victims had been submitted at the forensic lab at the University of Karachi, officials said.

Nineteen bodies were identified and handed over to the relatives after DNA tests and identification, according to health officials. And post-mortems were being carried out on the rest of the passengers of the plane, an Airbus A320 belonging to the national airline.

An airline spokesman said on Saturday that the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder had been recovered from the crash site, Reuters reported.

"The black box had been found late yesterday, we are handing it over to the inquiry board," a Pakistan International Airlines spokesman, Abdullah Khan, was quoted as saying.

The crash has cast a pall on the nation a day before Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim holiday marking the end of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting.

The nation's aviation industry has long had a troubled history of crashes. Most of the passengers, including top banking executives, a senior civil servant and military officials, had been returning to Karachi for Eid.

Pakistan Civil Aviation officials said 91 passengers and eight crew members had been on board Flight 8303 when it crashed on Friday afternoon after departing from the eastern city of Lahore en route to the southern port city of Karachi.

Two reportedly survived. The plane went down at 2.37pm a few miles from the airport.

The pilot reported having lost engines as he tried to land, declaring, "Mayday, Mayday!" Prime Minister Imran Khan has ordered an inquiry, and the country's Safety Investigation Board, comprising senior air force and aviation officials, is leading the investigation.

Officials said on Saturday that, miraculously, there were no fatalities on the ground though the plane damaged 19 houses, setting two ablaze and burning them to the ground, in Model Colony, 3.2km from the Karachi airport.

Imran Ali's 32-year old nephew, Armaghan Ali, was one of the people onboard the ill-fated plane.

"Several family members tried their best to recognise his body among several corpses, but bodies are burned and massively disfigured," he said.

So Ali provided a blood sample from his sister to help identify his nephew, and he was still waiting for the results.

"He was working with the country's mega housing firm in Lahore and was coming to celebrate Eid with the family," Ali said.

Muhammad Naeem, a university student, pointed on Saturday to what was left of a destroyed house. He said the family that live there had been busy preparing for the wedding of their daughter. It had been scheduled after Eid.

"They have stocked furniture, clothes and other expensive items for the wedding for their daughter," Naeem said. "But the plane crash destroyed everything."

He said two women in the house had been injured but were in stable condition.

Waqar Ahmed, another resident, demanded that the government move the airport away from the residential area of the city - a demand unlikely to be met.

"Because of close proximity, children often panic when planes land," he said. "Friday's plane crash now showed how dangerous it is to live very near to the airport."

Rescue workers and military officials worked through Friday night to complete the rescue operation.


A video of one of the survivors pulled from the wreckage emerged and was shared widely on social media.

"Help him! Save the one who is alive!" one man could be heard shouting in the footage as several people, including a paramilitary official, picked up a victim dressed in a white T-shirt and blue denim, his eyes closed and seemingly unconscious, and moving him away from smoky wreckage of the plane.

Another man asks if there are any more survivors, but he is quickly warned by a voice in the background that it is dangerous to move closer to the wreckage because the flames from the plane crash could quickly overtake the remaining houses.

The survivor pulled from the rubble was later identified as Zafar Masud, president and chief executive of Bank of Punjab, one of Pakistan's largest lenders. Masud moved to Lahore in March after he landed the job and was visiting family in Karachi for Eid.

"He is shaken but in good spirits, all other things considered," Zainab Imam, Masud's younger sister, said in an interview on Saturday.

"He told us how he was rescued by some very kind people who carefully pulled him out of the debris and into the ambulance," Imam said. That's when he realised he'd broken his arm and injured his leg."

Masud was taken to the Combined Military Hospital in the Malir neighbourhood of Karachi.

"He borrowed a hospital staffer's phone to call my parents as soon as he could," Imam said, adding: "He is a brave man, with great presence of mind."

Imam said the family was grateful to those who had stepped in to rescue her brother: "We are indebted to them as a family. They are heroes."

The other survivor of the air crash, Muhammad Zubair, told local news outlets that the flight felt normal after departing from Lahore - but things changed as it approached the Karachi airport. He said the pilot made two landing attempts.

"Within two to three minutes of the second announcement of landing, the plane crashed," Zubair said.

"There was fire everywhere and screams of elders and children," he added.

"I unbuckled my seat and looked around and saw light. I got outside and jumped from a distance of 10 feet."

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