'No survivors' as Pakistan plane crash claims 152 lives

Airblue denies claims that the aircraft was in poor condition or the pilot was fatigued with the black box yet to be recovered.

ISLAMABAD // Bad weather late yesterday was hampering efforts to recover the remains of all 152 people killed in Pakistan's worst aviation disaster. The Air Bus A321, operated by the private airline Airblue, was flying from the southern port city of Karachi to the capital before crashing into a thickly forested ridge overlooking Islamabad during fog and heavy rain at around 9.45am.

"We have suspended the air operation because of rain. It will take a long time to clear the area. There's no way to transport bodies from the site except via helicopters, and even helicopters cannot land there," Aamir Ali Ahmed, a senior city government official, said. "There are no survivors. We believe all are dead," said Imtiaz Elahi, the chairman of the Capital Development Authority, a city municipal body.

By last night, 115 bodies had been recovered, but only 12 of them were recognisable and the rest would have to undergo DNA testing in order to identify them, Qamar Zaman Kaira, the information minister, said. He added that the plane's black box was yet to be found. The rescue official Arshad Javed told the AFP news service of horrifying scenes at the crash site. "All we could see were charred hands or feet. I collected two heads, two legs and two hands in a bag.

"We shouted if anyone was there alive, but heard no voice," he said. As anguished relatives gathered at the hospital, the crash victims' tragic stories emerged. Aesar Ali, 30, a businessman, and his sister Tasleem Kausar, 25, were returning from Karachi on flight ABQ 202, which departed from Karachi at 7.45am, after visiting relatives. A family of eight, two women and six men, were also onboard to attend a funeral scheduled for 3pm yesterday. Farooq Khan, 47, a project director at the ministry of information, was returning to Islamabad from an official visit.

Rabab Zehra Naqvi, 21, a Karachi student wanted to pursue a career in national politics. Owais Khan, 26, and his wife Romaisa Khan were married just three days before the crash. Before moving to Turkey, they were travelling to Islamabad for a farewell call to some relatives. Yusuf Raza Gilani, the Pakistani prime minister, announced a day of mourning yesterday while Rehman Malik, the interior minister, said the "prime minister has ordered an investigation into the crash. All aspects are being looked into".

Most of the dead were Pakistanis. Two US citizens onboard were also among the dead, according to the United States Embassy. Witnesses said the aircraft was flying at a dangerously low altitude before the crash. Apparently, the pilot attempted landing at the Islamabad's Benazir Bhutto international airport despite poor visibility and a monsoon downpour that had forced an earlier flight from Karachi to reroute to the eastern city of Lahore a half an hour before the crash, according officials. Civil Aviation officials said the runway was busy when the aircraft approached the Islamabad airport. The pilot was told to make a round over the city. But the aircraft veered into a no-fly zone. Soon afterwards, it crashed into the Margalla Hills, located north of Islamabad. Mr Malik said the passenger jet made a sudden ascent to 3,000 feet after coming in to land and termed the action as an "unexplained factor". "I was in my car and saw the plane passing overhead, towards the hills", Ishtiaq Ahmad, a professor at Quaid-e-Azam University, said. "It was a low altitude flight. The landing gear was on, the wheels were visible." He said the aircraft did not seem to have any technical problems though he was alarmed at its unusually low altitude. "I said to my driver that it was very strange that the plane was flying so low. I think the time was 9.45am." The aircraft crashed into a non-residential, thickly forested hills with no road access. Rescue workers, police officials and army teams scrambled to the crash site to carry out the rescue operation. Initially, Pakistani officials said five survivors had been airlifted to hospital, but those reports turned out to be false. Rescue workers sifted and scoured through the mangled remains of the aircraft as smoke spewed out of the debris scattered over a 400-metre area. Body parts, charred and burnt, littered the ground. Airblue management dismissed speculations that the aircraft was in a bad condition or that the pilot, Pervez Iqbal Chaudhry, 65, was fatigued. Chaudhry had 35-years experience of flying, Mohammed Raheel, the spokesperson for Airblue, said. "This plane was in the use of Airblue for the past four years. "The plane was serviceable. It had no technical fault. The weather, no doubt, was poor but one cannot say it was below the parameters", Mr Raheel said. "Everything will come out after civil aviation completes its investigations." A total of 146 passengers including two infants, five children and 29 women, along with six crewmembers, were onboard, according to a list issued by the aviation authority. Distraught relatives and friends soon gathered at the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences Hospital in Islamabad, where dead bodies were brought, some draped in white shrouds, some in coffins. Most of the bodies were charred beyond recognition. A young man, Ali, cried while talking on a mobile phone. His brother Owais was the newly wed who died along with his wife. As a friend tried to console Ali, he lunged towards an ambulance that brought more bodies. "No one is telling us anything", the friend said. Nadeem Khan, 42, a salesman, said he had come to inquire about the brother of his employer, Nabeel Lutfi, who had gone to Karachi for an official visit. Lutfi, 50, was a father of three and a government official. "When we heard there were survivors, we hoped against hope", Mr Khan said. "It is Allah's will." foreign.desk@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by Reuters