NEW DELHI: At least 18 people were killed on Friday (Aug 7) when a passenger jet was ripped in two after it overshot and skidded off the runway upon landing in southern India, officials said.
More than 100 others were injured, 16 of them seriously, after the Air India Express Boeing 737 from Dubai - a coronavirus evacuation flight - plunged off the runway down an embankment in heavy rain in Kozhikode.
Officials said that 191 passengers and crew were on board the plane that plummeted 10m off the so-called tabletop runway - which can be tricky to land on - in Kerala state.
Mercifully, the plane did not catch fire.
READ: Rescuers shaken by 'blood and death' of Air India Express disaster
According to a patient list seen by AFP, the dead include a 10-month-old infant and an 18-month-old toddler.
The plane's pilot and the co-pilot were also killed in the accident, K Gopalakrishnan, chief of the Malappuram district in the southern state of Kerala, told Reuters.
One of the two pilots who died in the crash, Deepak Sathe, was a former Air Force fighter pilot, reports said.
"All passengers have been admitted to various hospitals, and they are also being tested for COVID-19," Gopalakrishnan said, adding autopsy of the bodies would be carried out according to the COVID-19 protocol.
Senior local policeman Abdul Karim told AFP said that at least 15 passengers were in a serious condition and being treated in local hospitals.
Indian media quoted data from a flight tracker website showing that the aircraft appears to have attempted to land twice, with survivors telling local TV that the plane went up and down repeatedly before landing.
Rescue staff and locals hurried to the scene, desperately trying to free people from the wreckage in the dark and rain.
Several people on board had to be cut out with special equipment.
"Locals rushed to the spot after hearing the noise," one rescue worker said. "People came in cars, messages were being sent on WhatsApp ... that people were needed to help."
"At first, people took the injured to the hospitals in their cars. Then the emergency services took over."
Another said he tried to bring a gravely injured baby to hospital for treatment in his car, but she did not survive the trip.
"If she had been in an ambulance, maybe the child could have been saved," he said.
The flight was one of hundreds in recent months to bring home some of the tens of thousands of Indians stranded abroad by the coronavirus pandemic, many of them from Gulf countries to Kerala.
According to flight documents seen by AFP, 15 of those on board had lost their jobs and 12 were returning for a medical emergency. Two were coming back for their weddings.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted his condolences.
"My thoughts are with those who lost their loved ones. May the injured recover at the earliest ... Authorities are at the spot, providing all assistance to the affected," Modi said.
Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri said he was "anguished and distressed" and that a formal enquiry would be conducted by accident investigators.
One television channel reported there had been a problem with the jet's landing gear, but this was not confirmed by Air India Express or the aviation authority.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said he was saddened by the "loss of innocent lives".
In June, a Pakistan International Airlines flight ploughed into a crowded Karachi neighbourhood, killing 97 people aboard and a child on the ground.
The last major plane crash in India was in 2010 when an Air India Express Boeing 737-800 from Dubai to Mangalore overshot the runway - again a tabletop landing surface - and burst into flames.
The crash killed 158 people and left eight survivors.
Kerala has been battered by heavy rains in recent days.
At least 15 people were killed on Friday after a landslide triggered by heavy rains flattened a row of huts elsewhere in the state. Fifty others were missing.
"It has been raining for the last two days... This is the third calamity in the region (this year). First floods, then a landslide and now this," said Karim, the senior policeman.
Local TV news channels showed passengers, some of them lying motionless on stretchers, brought into a hospital surrounded by health workers wearing masks because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Air India Express AXB1344 was a government-operated repatriation flight for Indians previously unable to return home because of the travel restrictions.
India, which shut down all air travel in late March to try to contain the novel coronavirus, has restarted limited international air travel.
Kozhikode is home to a large number of Indians working in the Middle East.