Pakistan’s Worst Aviation Disaster

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Pakistan’s Worst Aviation Disaster

Post  nex on Wed Jul 28, 2010 10:17 pm

The Scene

It started with a roar, a huge sound that rattled windows in the north end of Islamabad Wednesday morning as a jet flew low over Pakistan’s capital. A moment later there was a rumble, like thunder, from the direction of the Margalla Hills that rise above the city.

Heavy mist shrouded the peaks at the beginning of the monsoon season, and it took hours for those living nearby to realize that the noise had not been a thunderclap. It was the sound of Pakistan's worst aviation disaster, the death of 152 people as Airblue Flight ED 202 from Karachi slammed into the wooded hills.

Wreckage spread over a peak and tumbled into a ravine, carving a charred swath through the forest. Witnesses described a fireball, and television footage showed pieces of the plane buried in the wet earth. The scene continued to burn for most of the day as helicopters dumped water in an effort to douse the fires. Plumes of blue smoke stood out against the clouds that sprinkled the area with light rain.

The point of impact was high on a rock face, supporting the initial finding that the pilot had brought the aircraft unusually low and was only starting to climb back to an altitude of 3,000 feet. That's lower than the tallest peak in the Margalla Hills, a range of Himalayan foothills that attracts tourists for rock climbing and hang gliding.

“That was an unexplained factor,” Interior Minister Rehman Malik told reporters.

Also puzzling was the fact that Flight 202 crashed several kilometres outside the usual radius for flights circling Islamabad's airport. The plane had arrived late, and air traffic controllers asked the pilots to circle before landing, but it appears the aircraft drifted out of the typical holding pattern.

The Searchers

People came running from all directions when they heard about the crash. Office workers scrambled up the muddy hillside in their dress clothes. Religious students abandoned their studies. Some of the first to arrive were villagers such as Pervez Ali, 35, who lives in the nearby settlement of Pir Sohawa and knows the maze of trails in the hills.

“We saw dead bodies, blood, bits of people scattered everywhere,” Mr. Ali said. “It smelled like burning flesh.”

The first organized rescuers came from the Pakistan Red Crescent Society, which has an office nearby. Khalid bin Majweed and a dozen of his colleagues saw nothing but smoke at first, then fire, then a horrific landscape of broken aircraft and fragments of bodies. “We haven't found anybody alive,” he said.

Nor do they expect to. Men continued to scour the hills until sunset, and will continue Thursday, but they acknowledge that they are looking primarily for the plane's flight-data recorder, or “black box.” Searchers thought they had found it Wednesday afternoon, raising hopes that were dashed later in the evening as senior officials confirmed they are still looking for the recorder.

Their work was hampered by slippery footing, rough terrain, and the fact that many Muslims observe a fast during the holy day of Shab-e-barat. The religious holiday also put many people at the scene in a reflective mood.

“It's very sad, especially because this is Shab-e-barat and all night this nation has been praying,” said Senator Nilofar Bakhtiar, who serves as chair of the Pakistan Red Crescent Society. “When we woke up with this news, there couldn't have been anything more depressing than this. For a nation like Pakistan which is witnessing suicide bombings and all kinds of attacks every day, this is something we did not need as a nation.”

The Mourners

In the afternoon, as rescuers were giving up, a weeping woman climbed into the hills. Most other families of people aboard Flight 202 were crowding around the arrivals gate of Islamabad Benazir Bhutto International Airport, while the less optimistic visited local hospitals. But Sobia Baig, 30, hiked toward the plume of smoke in the forest. She wanted to know what had happened to her husband, 48-year-old Mirza Tahir Baig. He had boarded in Karachi that morning, she said, on his way home to Islamabad. He was an importer of metal sheeting, returning from a business trip. He wasn't answering his cellphone. Ms. Baig walked halfway up the hill and then stopped, overcome with grief. She leaned on her relatives and wailed: “I have three children, please God, take me and not my husband.” She seemed uncertain whether she wanted to reach the top of the road, where officials would confirm that the flight had no survivors.

Family members such as Ms. Baig had clung to their hopes earlier in the day because of mistaken reports that a handful of survivors had been plucked from the hills by helicopter. Other reports suggested that some passengers on the flight manifest had, in fact, missed their departure in Karachi.

By late afternoon, those hopes were fading. Angry mobs gathered at one of Islamabad's biggest hospitals, demanding information. Medical staff told the crowds that answers would come slowly, as many human remains were charred beyond recognition and will require DNA analysis for identification.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has declared a national day of mourning.

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