NEW DELHI (AP) — A special evacuation flight bringing people home to India who had been trapped abroad because of the coronavirus skidded off a runway and split in two while landing Friday in heavy rain in the southern state of Kerala, killing at least 16 passengers and injuring 123 more, police said.
Abdul Karim, a senior Kerala state police officer, said the dead included one of the pilots of the two-year-old Boeing 737-800 flying for Air India Express airline. He said at least 15 of the injured were in critical condition, and that rescue operations were over.
The NDTV news channel said the plane flew from Dubai to Kozhikode, also called Calicut, in Kerala, India’s southernmost state.
No fire was reported on the Boeing 737 aircraft after it landed and broke into two pieces, Rajiv Jain, a spokesman for the Civil Aviation Ministry, said.
Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep S. Puri said in a statement that the flight “overshot the runway in rainy conditions and went down 35 feet (10.6 meters) into a slope before breaking up into two pieces.”
An inquiry will be conducted by the ministry’s Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau, he said.
Dubai-based aviation consultant Mark Martin said that while it was too early to determine the cause of the crash, annual monsoon conditions appeared to be a factor.
“Low visibility, wet runway, low cloud base, all leading to very poor braking action is what looks like led to where we are at the moment with this crash,” Martin said, calling for the European Aviation Safety Agency and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to assist with the Indian government’s investigation.
It was a repatriation flight carrying Indian citizens back to the country, officials said. Regular commercial flights have been halted in India because of the coronavirus outbreak.
There were 174 adult passengers, 10 infants, two pilots and four cabin crew on board the aircraft, Jain said.
Amitabh Kant, who heads the government’s planning commission, said the runway is on a hilltop with deep gorges on either side, making it difficult to land.
“The incident happened because of heavy rains and poor visibility. This is truly devastating,” he told NDTV.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted that he was “pained by the plane accident in Kozhikode,” and that he had spoken to Kerala’s top elected official.
Air India Express is a subsidiary of Air India.
The worst air disaster in India was on Nov. 12, 1996, when a Saudi Arabian Airlines flight collided midair with a Kazakhastan Airlines Flight near Charki Dadri in Haryana state, killing all 349 on board the two planes.