ISLAMABAD, (AP) – A passenger jet carrying 152 people crashed into the hills surrounding Pakistan’s capital amid rain and caught fire Wednesday, officials said. At least 25 people were killed and five survived with injuries, but many more were feared dead in the smoking wreck.
The cause of the Airblue crash was not immediately clear, said Pervez George, a civil aviation official. He said the plane had left the southern city of Karachi at 7:45 a.m. for a two-hour scheduled flight to Islamabad and was trying to land during difficult, cloudy weather. Airblue is a private service based in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city.
“The plane was about to land at the Islamabad airport when it lost contact with the control tower, and later we learned that the plane had crashed,” George said, adding that the model of the plane was Airbus 321 and the flight number was ED202.
Rescue workers have recovered at least 25 bodies from the wreckage, said Ramzan Sajid, spokesman for the Capital Development Authority, which reports to the Interior Ministry and has a group that deals with emergencies.
Federal Interior Minister Rehman Malik said at least five wounded passengers were rescued.
Local TV footage showed twisted metal wreckage hanging from trees and scattered across the ground on a bed of broken branches. People were climbing the heavily forested hills to search for the dead and wounded, while a helicopter hovered above. Fire was visible and smoke rose from the scene. The army said it was sending special troops to aid the search.
At the Islamabad airport, hundreds of friends and relatives of those on board the flight swarmed ticket counters desperately seeking information. A large cluster of people also surrounded the list of passengers on the flight, which was posted near the Airblue ticket counter.
“We don’t know who survived, who died, who is injured,” said Zulfikar Ghazi, who was waiting to receive four relatives. “We are in shock, but no one is here to console us, to help us. How are we going to receive their bodies? If they are injured, where are they?”
“Nobody is guiding anyone. People are running from one counter to another,” said Arshad Mahmood, whose brother, Maulana Nawab Ulhasan, a prayer leader in a town near Islamabad, was on the flight.
“I’m praying for his survival, but I think there is little hope,” Mahmood said.
Saqlain Altaf told Pakistan’s ARY news channel that he was on a family outing in the hills when he saw the plane looking unsteady in the air. “The plane had lost balance, and then we saw it going down,” he said, adding that he heard the crash.
Officials at first thought it was a small plane, but later revised that. George said 146 passengers were on the flight along with six crew members.
It was unclear what caused the crash, and there were witness accounts that it was flying very low. But officials from the Pakistan Airline Pilot Association said the plane appeared to have strayed off course, possibly because of the weather.
When wind conditions are not favorable, pilots are often asked to circle around toward the Margalla hills to use a different runway, but they normally stay within 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) of the airport, said Zahid Barolla, the association’s joint secretary.
“But I don’t know why it drifted away so far,” Barolla said about the flight.
Suhil Baloch, head of the association, speculated that weather was the likely cause.
A frequent cause of aviation disasters during the approach and landing phase is known as “controlled flight into terrain,” in which an otherwise airworthy plane is accidentally flown into the ground or water, usually because of the pilots’ spatial disorientation due to low visibility or other factors.
Raheel Ahmed, a spokesman for the airline, said an investigation would be launched, but that for now the focus was to find survivors. The plane was no more than eight years old, and it had no known technical issues, Ahmed said. He added that to his knowledge, the pilots had not sent any emergency signals.
Airblue flies within Pakistan as well as internationally to the United Arab Emirates, Oman and the United Kingdom.
The only previous recorded accident for Airblue, a carrier that began flying in 2004, was a tailstrike in May 2008 at Quetta airport by one of the airline’s Airbus 321 jets. There were no casualties and damage was minimal, according to the U.S.-based Aviation Safety Network.
The Airbus 320 family of medium-range jets, which includes the 321 model that crashed Wednesday, is one of the most popular in the world, with about 4,000 jets delivered since deliveries began in 1988.
Twenty-one of the aircraft have been lost in accidents since then, according to the Aviation Safety Network’s database. The deadliest was a 2007 crash at landing in Sao Paolo by Brazil’s TAM airline, in which all 187 people on board perished, along with 12 others on the ground.
The last major plane crash in Pakistan was in July 2006 when a Fokker F-27 twin-engine aircraft operated by Pakistan International Airlines slammed into a wheat field on the outskirts of the central Pakistani city of Multan, killing all 45 people on board.
In August 1989, another PIA Fokker, with 54 people onboard, went down in northern Pakistan on a domestic flight. The plane’s wreckage was never found.
In September 1992, a PIA Airbus A300 crashed into a mountain in Nepal, killing all 167 people on board. Investigators found the plane was flying 1,500 feet lower than it reported as it approached the Katmandu airport.