Eighteen people were killed and scores injured when an Air India Express flight from Dubai with 190 on board overshot the tabletop runway in Kozhikode airport in Kerala on Friday night while landing in heavy rains and fell into a valley 35 feet below and broke into two portions, officials said.
"18 people, including two pilots, have lost their lives. It is unfortunate. 127 people are at hospitals, others have been released," civil aviation minister Hardeep Singh Puri said.
The pilot-in-command Captain Deepak Sathe and his co-pilot Akhilesh Kumar were among those who died, police and airline officials said.
Sathe was a former Wing Commander of the Indian Air Force and had served at the force's flight testing establishment.
"Unfortunately the pilots have passed away and we are in touch with their families in grief," said an Air India Express statement past midnight.
"Our task would have been much more difficult if the plane had caught fire. I am going to the airport," Puri said.
The civil aviation ministry said the Boeing 737 aircraft on a flight from Dubai to Kozhikode overshot the runway at Kozhikode airport at 7.41 pm on Friday.
"No fire was reported at the time of landing," it said.
There were 184 passengers including 10 infants, 2 pilots and 4 cabin crew on board the aircraft, the ministry added.
It was a repatriation flight operated by the Centre under the 'Vande Bharat' mission to bring home Indian nationals hit by international travel restrictions due to the spread of COVID-19.
The identity of the victims was not immediately known.
Malappuram District Collector K Gopalakrishan said some of the injured were in a critical condition.
Riyas, one of the passengers, who was rescued, said the flight went around the airport twice before attempting to land.
"I was in the back seat. There was a big noise and I don't know what happened after that," he told a TV channel.
Fathima, another passenger, said the flight landed with heavy force and moved forward.
A statement by civil aviation regulator Directorate General of Civil Aviation said the airplane after landing at Runway 10 continued moving to the end of the runway amid heavy rains and "fell down in the valley and broke into two pieces".
The Air India Express is a wholly owned subsidiary of Air India and it has only B737 aircraft in its fleet.
TV footage from the accident site showed the aircraft split into two pieces and the debris lay scattered on the ground.
The mishap brought back memories of the crash of Air India Express flight IX 812 on May 22, 2010 at Mangaluru International Airport.
The flight from Dubai had overshot the runway and plunged down the cliff into a wooded valley, killing 158 people.
The probe into the 2010 crash had found that the Captain misjudged the height while landing, resulting in the flight overshooting the runway located on a plateau.
Help centres have being set up in Kozhikode, Sharjah and Dubai.
SEE: Plane skid off during landing at Kozhikode Airport
President Ram Nath Kovind, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi were among several leaders who expressed shock at the accident.
Modi also spoke to Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan.
"Pained by the plane accident in Kozhikode. My thoughts are with those who lost their loved ones. May the injured recover at the earliest," the prime minister tweeted.
Authorities are at the spot providing all assistance to the affected, Modi said.
Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri said he is deeply "anguished and distressed" at the accident and that relief teams from Air India and Airports Authority of India are being immediately dispatched from Delhi and Mumbai.
"All efforts are being made to help passengers. A formal enquiry will be conducted by AAIB (Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau)," the minister said on Twitter.
"The Air India Express flight number AXB-1344 on its way from Dubai to Kozhikode with 190 persons on board, overshot the runway in rainy conditions & went down 35 ft. into a slope before breaking up into two pieces," he tweeted.
In another tweet at 12.01 am, he said the rescue operations have been completed.
"Two investigation teams of professionals from @airindiain @AAI_Official & AAIB will leave for Kozhikode at 02.00 hrs & 05.00 hrs. Everyone has now been rescued from the aircraft. Rescue operations are now complete. Injured being treated at various city hospitals," he said.
Screams of pain, blood soaked clothes, terrified children and the blare of ambulance sirens captured the distressing scene that unfolded after the ill fated plane fell into the valley with a deafening sound.
Amid heavy rain, rescue personnel, including the local civil police, rushed to pull out the injured people from the aircraft while the passengers were stunned to even comprehend what had happened in a matter of moments that led to chaotic moments.
Children, some as young as four or five years clung on to the rescue personnel while things strewn around, from shoes to baggage, bore tell tale signs of the agonising moments endured by passengers.
The scene was similar in hospitals where the injured were rushed as screams rent the air with health workers trying to provide succor.
People living nearby pitched in on time to lend a helping hand to the shocked passengers.
A local man said he rushed to the airport after hearing a "terrible thud" when the airplane fell.
"Small kids were trapped under the seats and it was such a distressing sight," he said.
"When we reached there some were deplaned.
"Many of them were seriously injured.
"Legs were broken....My hands and shirt were soaked in the blood of the injured persons", he said.
Another man in the rescue operations, who could not be immediately identified, told a TV channel that the "injured pilot of the aircraft was taken out from the cockpit after breaking it."
By the time ambulances started reaching the spot, the locals had already started shifting injured passengers in cars to various hospitals in Kozhikode and Malappuram districts, he said.
Collector Gopalakrishnan said 110 people were admitted to seven hospitals in Kozhikode and 11 among them are dead.
"Remaining are under treatment and their condition are at different stages. Among the 80 people admitted in Malappuram hospitals we have received information of six deaths there.
"Some of the patients are critical," he said.
The official also said two passengers, who got trapped at the tail portion of the aircraft, were rescued with great difficulty.
Chief Minister Vijayan asked all government agencies to engage in rescue operations using all government facilities.
He has deputed state minister A C Moideen to coordinate the rescue operations.
An Inspector General-rank officer was also deputed to oversee the operations.
Fire and Rescue teams of two districts-- Kozhikode and Malappuram-- were also pressed into service.
The condition of a mother and child injured in the accident was very serious, state health minister K K Shailaja said.
All photographs: PTI Photo