All 152 people aboard a Pakistani passenger jet were killed Wednesday when it slammed into a forested ridge outside Islamabad, in what is believed to be the worst domestic aviation disaster in Pakistan’s history.
The plane, which belonged to Air Blue, a private Pakistani airline, was on its way from Karachi to the Pakistani capital and was flying in heavy fog and rain when it crashed about 9:45 a.m. in the Margalla Hills region, authorities said.
Pervaiz George, spokesman for the Pakistani Civil Aviation Authority, said 146 passengers and six crew members were aboard the plane.
Television video of the crash site showed smoke billowing from twisted shards of fuselage scattered in dense underbrush. Rescue helicopters hovered overhead as dozens of emergency workers clambered up the ridge’s steep slopes to get to the crash site.
Much of the wreckage, scattered over a 4,500-square-foot area, was found in a deep ravine difficult for rescue personnel to reach.
Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira said Wednesday evening that 115 bodies had been recovered. The dead included two U.S. citizens, the State Department said in a statement.
The plane’s flight data recorder was also found and turned over to the Pakistani air force for analysis.
Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik said the plane, an Airbus 321, was at 2,600 feet and preparing to land at Islamabad’s Benazir Bhutto International Airport when air traffic controllers directed the pilot to change his approach.
The pilot veered off to make a different approach, but then made a sudden ascent to 3,000 feet, Malik said, calling the abrupt change in altitude “an unaccounted for factor.”
The change in direction took the plane toward the Margalla Hills, where heavy fog obscured much of the ridge line. Junaid Amin, chief of the Civil Aviation Authority, the government agency that oversees commercial aviation, told Pakistani television that the pilot should have flown parallel to the runway before circling for another approach. Instead, it appeared that the pilot was heading to the Margalla Hills.
Residents of Islamabad neighborhoods just south of the hills said they saw the plane flying at an unusually low altitude minutes before the crash.
“It was flying very low, and I don’t think they could see where they were going because of the very heavy fog here,” Anjum Rehman told Pakistan’s Express 24/7 news channel. Rehman is a reporter for the channel, and happened to be on her balcony at the time. “Then we heard an extremely loud explosion just two minutes after that.”
George said the pilot’s last contact with air traffic controllers was two minutes before the plane crashed, and that the pilot did not give any indication that there was a problem.
Authorities said the plane was 8 to 10 years old. Raheel Ahmed, a spokesman for Air Blue, said there were no known technical problems associated with the plane. “The aircraft was absolutely serviceable,” Ahmed said.
Frantic relatives gathered at the airports in Islamabad and Karachi as well as at the capital’s major hospitals, waiting for word of their loved ones. Initial reports that there were survivors proved to be wrong, and by late afternoon relatives had begun the grim task of identifying the dead.
Abdul Qadir, 40, lost five family members in the crash; a brother, two cousins, a brother-in-law and an aunt. Qadir’s relatives had been flying to Islamabad to attend a funeral.
“This is really a tragedy on top of another tragedy,” Qadir said as he huddled with other relatives outside Islamabad’s Pakistan Institute of Medical Services Hospital. “It’s a terrible day for us, but we understand it’s in God’s hands.”
Malik Mohammed Yunis’ brother, Malik Mohammed Yousef, a 61-year-old oil refinery engineer, was flying back to Islamabad from Karachi after a job interview. “This flight should have been postponed, given the weather here,” Yunis said. “Our family is going through a very difficult time right now.”
There have been no previous crashes of the Airbus 321 model, a medium-range commercial airliner that has been in service since 1994. At least 606 Airbus 321 jets have been delivered since 1994.
Air Blue is a Karachi-based domestic airline that also flies to the United Arab Emirates, Oman and the United Kingdom. It began service in 2004.
Pakistan’s last major aviation disaster occurred in 2006, when a Pakistan International Airlines passenger aircraft crashed into a wheat field near the central city of Multan. All 45 people aboard were killed.