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Death toll from Indian passenger aircraft accident rises to 18


By Favas Jalla and Jose Devasia

KOZHIKODE, India (Reuters) - The death toll from an Indian passenger aircraft accident has risen to 18, while 16 people have been seriously injured, a senior government official said on Saturday.

The Air India Express plane, which was repatriating Indians stranded in Dubai due to the coronavirus pandemic, overshot the runway of the Calicut International Airport in heavy rain near the southern city of Kozhikode on Friday. It was India's worst passenger aircraft accident since 2010.

The flight was carrying 190 passengers and crew.

The plane's pilot and the co-pilot were killed in the accident, K Gopalakrishnan, chief of the Malappuram district in the southern state of Kerala, told Reuters.

All survivors were admitted to various hospitals and were also tested for COVID-19, Gopalakrishnan said, adding that autopsies of the dead would also be carried out according to the COVID-19 protocol.

Some 149 patients remain in hospital after some were discharged on Saturday, Gopalakrishnan said.

Authorities have also asked local people who rushed out to help the passengers trapped in the plane to go into quarantine.

The Boeing-737 plane skidded off the table-top runway of Calicut, crashing nose-first into the ground. Such runways are located at an altitude and have steep drops at one or both ends.

In 2010, another Air India Express flight from Dubai overshot the table-top runway at Mangalore, a city in the south, and slid down a hill, killing 158 people.

INVESTIGATION

Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri visited the site of the accident on Saturday.

"It (the plane) overshot the runway while trying to land amidst what were clearly inclement weather conditions prevailing at that time," Puri told a news conference, adding that it would be premature to speculate on the precise cause of the accident.

Puri said two separate teams had already reached Kozhikode from New Delhi to carry out an investigation into the crash.

He said authorities managed to rescue most of the passengers because the plane did not catch fire while descending the slope at the end of the runway.

The flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder have been recovered from the site, a top official at the Directorate General of Civil Aviation told Reuters.

Giving a breakdown of all those on board the plane, Puri earlier said they included 10 children, 174 adult passengers, four cabin crew and two pilots.

"The pilot tried a lot to land us (safely) in the rainy weather. It was cloudy and around 7-7.30 pm (GMT 1330-1400) in the evening, we crash-landed. It was difficult to land, he tried a lot," said one passenger, who gave his name as Ashraf.

India, which halted all flights in late March to try to contain the coronavirus, has restarted limited international air travel.

Air India Express AXB1344 was a government-operated repatriation flight for Indians previously unable to return home because of travel restrictions.

(Writing by Mayank Bhardwaj; Editing by Himani Sarkar and Gareth Jones)

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