Updated at 4:49 p.m. ET on 2018-03-12
At least 49 people died when a Bangladeshi airliner carrying 71 passengers and crew slammed into an empty field and burst into flames while landing at Kathmandu airport on Monday, in one of Nepal’s worst aviation disasters, officials said.
US-Bangla Airlines Flight 211, a Bombardier Q400 turboprop, veered off the runway as it was touching down at Tribhuvan International Airport during a flight from Dhaka, Bangladeshi ambassador to Nepal Mashfi Binte Shams told BenarNews by phone.
Hours later, the Bangladeshi foreign ministry confirmed that the flight was carrying 33 Nepalis, 32 Bangladeshis, one Chinese national and one Maldivian. Four Bangladeshi crew members were also on board.
Nine Bangladeshi passengers were among 22 people who were rescued alive, the ministry said in a statement. The survivors were taken to three hospitals after rescuers dashed into the crumpled fuselage and tried to pull out as many people as they could, officials said.
“Some of them are critically injured,” the ministry said.
At least 25 Bangladeshis were killed.
Shahriar Alam, the Bangladeshi state minister for foreign affairs, posted on his Facebook page the names of 23 Bangladeshis passengers and two crewmen who died in the crash.
“Those names written in green color are wounded. Our embassy people met them in hospital,” Alam said, adding that the pilot, Abib Sultan, was taken to a hospital. “One crew member might be alive. We have not been able to reach him yet.”
Alam’s list identified the co-pilot as Prithula Rashid, a woman who was among the dead.
Authorities have not confirmed if all the bodies were recovered.
In Singapore, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was cutting short a four-day visit there and was to return to Dhaka on Tuesday to deal with aftermath of the air disaster in Nepal, her press office said.
“The prime minister is keeping round-the-clock contact in this regard,” Press Secretary Ihsanul Karim told reporters in Singapore.
There have been no official statements on what caused the crash, but Raj Kumar Chhetri, the airport’s general manager, told Al Jazeera television that the aircraft skidded off the runaway after attempting to land in the “wrong direction against the order of the control room.”
“The control room had given permission to land from the southern end. But it landed from the northern side after making few rounds [circling] in the sky,” he said.
His statements contradicted those of Imran Asif, chief executive officer of US-Bangla Airlines, who earlier blamed Kathmandu’s air traffic control for giving the pilot “wrong messages for landing.”
“The conversation gives us the impression that [the] wrong message was given to the pilot from the air traffic control,” Asif told reporters in Dhaka. “We can assure that was no problem from the pilot. We maintained all security procedures before flying.”
An audio tape of air traffic communications posted on a private channel on YouTube between the control tower and the airplane pilot showed what appeared to be confusion over the direction in which the plane was supposed to approach the single runway at Tribhuvan.
Eyewitnesses said they saw the plane crash as it made a second approach toward the airport, bursting into flames after it veered off the runway.
“The plane landed at a very high speed. After the landing, the plane caught fire and skidded off the runway,” Shudrabata Das told Ekattor, a privately-owned Bangladeshi news TV channel.
Airport workers interviewed by Reuters said the plane overshot the runway by about 150 feet before nose-diving into the deserted field just beyond the airport fence.
As the first group of rescuers was pulling panicked passengers out of the front of the plane, an intense fire broke out toward the tail end, the New York Times quoted witnesses as saying.
“The Bangladeshis were screaming out in English: ‘Help me, please help me.’” Balkrisha Upadhyay, a Nepalese army rescuer, told the newspaper.
Tribhuvan International Airport, about six km (3.8 miles) from Kathmandu, is the only international airport in Nepal and was inaugurated in 1955. It was originally a grass runway and was re-laid in concrete in 1957. It is about 4,390 feet above sea level with a runway dimension of 10,000 feet by 150 feet, according to the airport’s official website.
Aviation accidents are common in the Himalayan country. In September 1992, a Pakistan International Airlines flight also crashed on approach to the Tribhuvan airport, killing all 167 people on board. It was the 100th aviation disaster and the deadliest aviation crash to occur on Nepalese soil, officials said.
About two months earlier, a Thai Airways flight crashed on approach to the same airport, hitting the side of a mountain at a ground speed of 300 nautical miles per second. All 99 passengers and 14 crew members were killed. In September 2012, a turboprop carrying trekkers to Mount Everest hit a bird and crashed shortly after takeoff, killing all 19 on board.
Officials at Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka, the largest airport in Bangladesh from where Monday’s flight took off, told BenarNews that most of the 33 Nepali nationals on board were transit passengers and a few were medical science students at Bangladesh Medical College in Dhaka.
US-Bangla Airlines commenced operations with domestic flights on July 17, 2014. It is a subsidiary of the US-Bangla Group, a United States-Bangladesh joint venture company. It announced the launch of its international flights two years ago.
‘A tall billow of thick black smoke’
Bombardier, the Canada-based aircraft manufacturer, issued a short statement on Twitter, saying it was saddened by the accident. “Our thoughts are with those injured, and their families,” it said.
Amanda Summers, a retired American living in Kathmandu, told CNN she saw the crash of flight BS 211 from her rooftop overlooking the airport.
“I was on my rooftop that overlooks Kathmandu from the top of the valley – I spend most of my time there – when I saw the plane flying at very low altitude,” she told CNN by phone.
“It was flying northwards and it was much too low. I thought at first that maybe it was extra cloud cover that was forcing the plane to fly low. Then I saw the plane change direction almost completely and it was flying straight towards us. Then it lost more altitude and finally crashed,” she said.
“I saw one spark, or flash. Then seconds later I saw another bigger one. It was almost as if the plane might have bounced. Then no more light but a tall billow of thick black smoke rose in the air,” she said.