As many as 160 people were feared dead after an Air India Express plane arriving from Dubai crashed and burst into flames at dawn Saturday as it overshot a tricky hilltop runway in southern India while trying to land in the rain. At least eight survived.
Dense black smoke billowed from the Boeing 737-800 aircraft surrounded by flames just outside Mangalore's Bajpe airport in a hilly area with thick grass and trees.
Firefighters sprayed water on the plane as others struggled to find survivors. An AP photo showed two rescuers running up a hill carrying a girl who was about 7 years old and covered in foam to bring her to waiting medics. The child was later treated for severe burns in a Mangalore hospital.
Other rescue workers pulled out scores of burned bodies from the blackened tangle of aircraft cables, twisted metal, charred trees and mud at the crash site. Many of the dead were still strapped into their seats, their bodies charred beyond recognition.
Relatives of the victims, who had come to the airport to meet them, were seen weeping near the wreckage.
"The plane shook with vibrations and split into two," a survivor named Pradeep told CNN-IBN television. He said the plane's initial touchdown appeared smooth at first, but trouble started about 15 seconds later.
Pradeep, who uses only one name, jumped out of the aircraft with four others into a pit, he said.
The plane had a small fire at first, but then a large explosion set off a bigger blaze, said Pradeep, who injured his hand and suffered burns to his feet.
Air India official Jitender Bhargava said the plane carried 160 passengers and six crew members. Officials in the state of Karnataka said only a small number may have survived.
"This is a major calamity," Karnataka Home Minister V.S. Acharya told CNN-IBN TV.
Eight of the 166 people on board had been rescued and were being treated in local hospitals, said Anup Srivastava, another official with the financially struggling Indian national carrier.
Air India runs cheap flights under the Air India Express banner to Dubai and other Persian Gulf destinations where millions of Indian expatriate workers are employed.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed condolences for the crash and promised compensation for the families of the victims. Boeing said in a statement that it was sending a team to provide technical aid to the government's crash investigation.
As the plane tried to land about 6 a.m. Saturday, it overshot the runway and crashed, Bhargava told The Associated Press.
The crash could be the deadliest in India since the November 1996 midair collision between a Saudi airliner and a Kazakh cargo plane near New Delhi that killed 349 people.
Scores of villagers scrambled over the hilly terrain to reach the wreckage, and began aiding in the rescue operation. Pre-monsoon rains over the past two days caused low visibility in the area, officials said.
Abdul Puttur, another survivor, told CNN-IBN television he jumped out of the wrecked plane and then pulled out two other passengers.
The airport's location, on a plateau surrounded by hills, made it difficult for the firefighters to reach the scene Saturday, officials said. Aviation experts said Bajpe airport's "tabletop" runway, which ends in a valley, makes a bad crash inevitable if a plane does not land just right.
"If the pilot overshoots the runway, the aircraft will be in trouble," said Asif, an aviation expert who uses one name.
Asif, a longtime air traffic controller, said Air India has traditionally insisted that only highly experienced pilots with more than 1,000 hours logged in the air be allowed to fly into tabletop runways.
"However, in recent years, Air India has hired a number pilots from abroad," he said. "Such expat pilots may not be very familiar with the terrain."
The airport is about 19 miles (30 kilometers) outside of Mangalore city.
The crash came as the national carrier tried to weather serious financial difficulties.
In February, the government approved a $173 million cash infusion for the airline, which as suffered decades of mismanagement and underinvestment.