Search resumes for four people missing in Nepal after deadly air crash

Key points

  • Rescuers have recovered 68 bodies out of the 72 people aboard the flight.
  • Fifteen foreign nationals, including an Australian, were among the 72 passengers and crew.
  • Nepal has declared a day of national mourning.

Kathmandu: Rescuers have resumed searching in Nepal for four people still missing after the Himalayan nation’s deadliest plane crash in 30 years.

Officials said an Australian was on board the plane that crashed into a gorge on Sunday in clear weather while attempting to land at a newly opened airport in the tourist city of Pokhara.

Rescuers have recovered 68 bodies out of the 72 people onboard the ATR 72 aircraft operated by Yeti Airlines.

The plane was carrying 57 Nepalis, five Indians, four Russians, two South Koreans, and one person each from Australia, Argentina, Ireland and France.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said on Sunday night it was urgently seeking to confirm the welfare of the Australian passenger on the flight, which had been making the 27-minute journey from the capital Kathmandu.

“We are devastated by the tragic Yeti Airlines crash in Pokhara this morning,” said Australia’s ambassador to Nepal, Felicity Volk.

A woman cries as the body of a relative, victim of a plane crash, is brought to a hospital in Pokhara, Nepal, on Sunday.Credit:AP

“We are working with authorities regarding the one Australian reported to be on the flight. Our hearts go out to all victims and their families.”

Pokhara police official Ajay K.C. said the search-and-rescue operation, which stopped because of darkness on Sunday, had resumed.

“We will take out the five bodies from the gorge and search for the remaining four that are still missing,” he told Reuters.

The other 63 bodies had been sent to a hospital, he said.

Nepalese rescue workers and civilians gather around the wreckage of a passenger plane that crashed in Pokhara, Nepal, on Sunday.Credit:AP

Rescuers were also searching for the black boxes – a cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder – as they looked for survivors, said Jagannath Niroula, a spokesperson for Nepal’s civil aviation authority.

Nepal has declared a day of national mourning on Monday and set up a panel to investigate the disaster and suggest measures to avoid such incidents in future.

Authorities said bodies will be handed over to families after identification and examination.

Nearly 350 people have died since 2000 in plane or helicopter crashes in Nepal – home to eight of the world’s 14 highest mountains, including Everest – where sudden weather changes can make for hazardous conditions.

Local resident Bishnu Tiwari, who rushed to the crash site near the Seti River to help search for bodies, said the rescue efforts were hampered by thick smoke and a raging fire.

“The flames were so hot that we couldn’t go near the wreckage. I heard a man crying for help, but because of the flames and smoke we couldn’t help him,” Tiwari said.

It was not immediately clear what caused the accident, Nepal’s Civil Aviation Authority said.

A witness said he saw the aircraft spinning violently in the air after it began descending to land, watching from the terrace of his house. Finally, Gaurav Gurung said, the plane fell nose-first towards its left and crashed into the gorge.

The aviation authority said the aircraft last made contact with the airport from near Seti Gorge at 10.50am before crashing.

The twin-engine ATR 72 aircraft, operated by Nepal’s Yeti Airlines, was flying from the capital, Kathmandu, to Pokhara, located 200 kilometres west. It was carrying 68 passengers including 15 foreign nationals, as well as four crew members, Nepal’s Civil Aviation Authority said in a statement. The foreigners included five Indians, four Russians, two South Koreans, and one each from Ireland, Australia, Argentina and France.

Images and videos shared on Twitter showed plumes of smoke billowing from the crash site, about 1.6 kilometres away from Pokhara International Airport. The aircraft’s fuselage was split into multiple parts that were scattered down the gorge.

Firefighters carried bodies, some burned beyond recognition, to hospitals where grief-stricken relatives had assembled. At Kathmandu airport, family members appeared distraught as they were escorted in and at times exchanged heated words with officials as they waited for information.

Tek Bahadur K.C., a senior administrative officer in the Kaski district, said he expected rescue workers to find more bodies at the bottom of the gorge.

Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, who rushed to Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu after the crash, set up a panel to investigate the accident.

“The incident was tragic. The full force of the Nepali army, police has been deployed for rescue,” he said.

South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it’s still trying to confirm the fate of two South Korean passengers and has sent staff to the scene. The Russian Ambassador to Nepal, Alexei Novikov, confirmed the death of four Russian citizens who were on board the plane.

Omar Gutiérrez, governor of Argentina’s Neuquen province, reported on his official Twitter account that an Argentine passanger on the flight was Jannet Palavecino from his province.

The Facebook page of Palavecino says she was manager of the Hotel Suizo in Neuquen city.

On the page, she described herself as a lover of travel, and of adventure tourism. “I am passionate about the mountains! Riding my bike in cycling. I love my garden and the countryside. I like to paint!” she wrote.

Her account has many photos of her in the mountains.

Pokhara is the gateway to the Annapurna Circuit, a popular hiking trail in the Himalayas. The city’s new international airport began operations only two weeks ago.

The type of plane involved, the ATR 72, has been used by airlines around the world for short regional flights. Introduced in the late 1980s by a French and Italian partnership, the aircraft model has been involved in several deadly accidents over the years.

In Taiwan two earlier accidents involving ATR 72-500 and ATR 72-600 aircraft happened just months apart.

In July 2014, a TransAsia ATR 72-500 flight crashed while trying to land on the scenic Penghu archipelago between Taiwan and China, killing 48 people onboard. An ATR 72-600 operated by the same Taiwanese airline crashed shortly after takeoff in Taipei in February 2015 after one of its engines failed and the second was shut down, apparently by mistake.

The 2015 crash, captured in dramatic footage that showed the plane striking a taxi as it hurtled out of control, killed 43, and prompted authorities to ground all Taiwanese-registered ATR 72s for some time. TransAsia ceased all flights in 2016 and later went out of business.

ATR identified the plane involved in Sunday’s crash as an ATR 72-500 in a tweet. According to plane tracking data from flightradar24.com, the aircraft was 15 years old and “equipped with an old transponder with unreliable data.” It was previously flown by India’s Kingfisher Airlines and Thailand’s Nok Air before Yeti took it over in 2019, according to records on Airfleets.net.

Yeti Airlines has a fleet of six ATR72-500 planes, company spokesperson Sudarshan Bartaula said.

Nepal, home to eight of the world’s 14 highest mountains, including Mount Everest, has a history of air crashes. According to the Flight Safety Foundation’s Aviation Safety database, there have been 42 fatal plane crashes in Nepal since 1946.

Sunday’s crash is Nepal’s deadliest since 1992, when all 167 people aboard a Pakistan International Airlines plane were killed when it plowed into a hill as it tried to land in Kathmandu.

The European Union has banned airlines from Nepal from flying into the 27-nation bloc since 2013, citing weak safety standards. In 2017, the International Civil Aviation Organisation cited improvements in Nepal’s aviation sector, but the EU continues to demand administrative reforms.

Reuters, AP

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