Rainfall hampers Pakistan crash investigation

The black box is yet to be recovered, which could help explain if bad weather or technical fault is to blame in the deaths of all 152 aboard.


Soldiers stand guard as an ambulance makes its way up a road towards the wreckage of an Airblue passenger plane which has crashed in the Margalla Hills on the outskirts of Islamabad July 28, 2010. A commercial Pakistani passenger plane with 152 people on board crashed in bad weather in hills near Islamabad on Wednesday, and police said they expected few had survived.   REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood (PAKISTAN  - Tags: DISASTER TRANSPORT MILITARY) *** Local Caption ***  SGP506_PAKISTAN-PLA_0728_11.JPG

ISLAMABAD // Heavy monsoon rains continued to pound Islamabad yesterday and hamper the recovery operation at the site of the country's worst plane crash that killed 152 people, officials said. Rehman Malik, the Pakistani interior minister, yesterday said that efforts to recover the black box of the Airblue Airbus A321 remained unsuccessful.

Mr Malik said the defence ministry would head the investigation into the cause of the crash. However, he ruled out the possibility of terrorism. Civil Aviation Authority officials said the plane strayed into an area where it was not supposed to go. The pilot had been told to make a round over the city as the runway was busy but the plane veered into a no fly zone. Finding out why will be a key task of the investigation team, said Riazul Haq, the deputy chief of the agency. "The fact remains it flew where it should not have done," he said.

Junaid Ameen, the authority's chief, called on rescue teams not to touch the wreckage, which could be invaluable to the investigation to determine whether a technical fault or bad weather was to blame. A team from European company Airbus was to arrive in Pakistan yesterday to assist with the investigation he said, refusing to speculate on reports that air traffic control may have asked the pilot to divert.

"It is the prerogative of the pilot to decide, keeping the situation in view. The air traffic controller can only advise him. "The incident shows that the pilot was in an emergency-like situation, that led him to enter the restricted area," he said, refusing to comment further. The plane broke apart into a gorge between two hills, scattering debris across hillsides enveloped in cloud and some distance from any roads.

It was the worst aviation tragedy ever on Pakistani soil. The only deadlier civilian plane crash involving a Pakistani jet saw a PIA Airbus A300 crash into a cloud-covered hillside on approach to the Napalese capital Kathmandu in 1992, killing 167 people. The Airblue flight had departed from the southern port city of Karachi on Wednesday morning for a scheduled two-hour flight to the capital. It crashed into a thickly forested ridge of the Margalla Hills overlooking the capital during fog and rain.

Mr Malik said yesterday 66 bodies had been handed over to the grieving families. Pakistani authorities are conducting DNA tests for further identification. An Islamabad police official said authorities were looking into reports that the pilot had flown from Turkey to Karachi and had expressed being tired. The pilot, 65, was over age standard of 60 set by the International Civil Aviation Organisation, which is an agency of the UN.

A five-member investigation team consisting of Civil Aviation officials has started an inquiry. Army and police teams tried to make their way through thick mud on the slippery hillside and rain to scour the debris and wreckage of the plane. Helicopters were unable to fly because of the rain and low clouds. But heavy downpour forced the recovery teams to abandon the search by midday. At least a dozen bodies are still thought be buried under the charred, mangled wreckage.

"Rescue teams will resume the search operation as soon as it stops raining as we still have to find the black box," Bin Yamin, Islamabad police chief, said. The national flag is flying at half-mast at all official buildings, marking a day of mourning for the dead. US president Barack Obama offered his "deepest condolences" over the plane crash. The UN chief, Ban Ki-moon, said he was "deeply saddened" and China's president, Hu Jintao, also conveyed his condolences.

@Email:smasood@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse