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 precarious hilltop runway in southern India while trying to land in the rain.
Eight people were rescued as dense black smoke billowed from the Boeing 737-800 aircraft surrounded by flames just outside the Mangalore city's Bajpe airport in a hilly area with thick grass and trees.
Details were sketchy as rescuers scoured wreckage and charred bodies strewn about the valley below the airport. Reports about the passenger manifest and survivors varied. Officials were also seeking to recover the plane's black box as the pilot did not report any trouble before the crash.
Firefighters sprayed water on the plane as rescue workers struggled to find survivors. One firefighter ran up a hill with an injured child in his arms.
Survivors describe escape
"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.
"There was tire-burst kind of noise," another survivor, who gave his name only as Abdullah, told local channel TV9 from the hospital. "I tried to get out of the front but saw that there was a big fire. So I went back again and jumped out from there."
Abdul Puttur, another survivor, told CNN-IBN television he jumped out of the wrecked plane and then pulled out two other passengers.
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. Earlier estimates of the number of people on the plane had varied slightly.
"This is a major calamity," said Karnataka Home Minister V.S. Acharya.
Eight on board had been rescued and were being treated in local hospitals, said Anup Srivastava, another official with the financially struggling Indian national carrier.
No Americans were believed to be aboard the flight, said a U.S. consulate officer. All the passengers were Indian nationals, an Air India official in Dubai said.
'Flight skidded off'
Television images showed rescuers evacuating people from inside. Footage from Suvarna News showed that most of the aircraft was destroyed in the crash.
New Delhi TV reported the plane fell off the end of a cliff at the end of the landing strip. The airport's location, on a plateau surrounded by hills, made it difficult for firefighters to reach the scene, officials said.
Scores of villagers scrambled over the hilly terrain to reach the wreckage, and began aiding in the rescue operation.
One television channel showed a fireman carrying in his arms what seemed to be the remains of a child.
"The flight had already landed. There was slight rain. The flight skidded off," eyewitness Mohiuddin Bava told TV reporters, said The Times of India. "After that it caught fire. Villagers, everyone there, came to rescue. The plane wings are right in front of me now."
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed condolences for the crash and promised compensation for the families of the victims.
Teams from the National Transportation Safety Board, Boeing and GE were sending representatives to assist the Indian investigation of the crash.
Rains reduce visibility
Pre-monsoon rains over the past two days caused low visibility in the area, officials said. Seemant Singh, a top police official at Mangalore airport, said that conditions at the airport were poor when the plane overshot the runway around 6:30 a.m. local time.
Mangalore airport is about 19 miles from Mangalore city.
The crash came as the national carrier Air India, parent of Air India Express, tried to weather serious financial difficulties.
In February, the government approved a $173 million cash infusion for the airline, which has suffered decades of mismanagement and underinvestment.
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.