Tragedy in the Margallas

courtsy : Dawn News

The plane was flying from Karachi to Islamabad and the exact cause of the crash was not immediately clear. — Photo by AFP


Crashed Pakistan plane was 10 years old: Airbus

Crashed Pakistan plane was 10 years old: Airbus

ISLAMABAD: Wednesday brought a picture perfect day to hilly Islamabad. But the low clouds hanging over the green Margalla hills hid in their midst a catastrophic accident.
Airblue Flight 202, which took off from Karachi at ten minutes to eight in the morning, had before the end of the next two hours crashed into the Margalla hills, killing all 152 people on board, including passengers and crew.

In the biggest ever air tragedy to take place within Pakistan in the aviation history of the country, it was also an incident that shook Islamabad; the last time the federal capital had experienced such a high death toll was during the Oct 8, 2005, earthquake when the collapse of an apartment building claimed 74 lives.

By 11 o’clock the news had spread around the city and the country. In Islamabad, the mood remained eerie and the turnout on the streets and roads thin.

Hospitals were the focus of attention all day long where hapless relatives camped out, distraught, hoping for news of their loved ones. Unfortunately, incorrect information by media outlets and the government about survivors merely added to their pain.

Low visibility due to the clouds and continuous rain was seen to have contributed to the crash and the weather hampered the rescue mission already made difficult due to the location of the crash.

As it hit the side of the Margalla hills, it slid down and landed in a relatively isolated area which was inaccessible by vehicles, even those being used by rescue teams.

But it was the poorly coordinated rescue operation at the Margalla Hills which highlighted yet again the state’s complete inability to respond to any crisis — be it man-made or natural.

Soon after the disaster, among the first people to arrive there were residents of Saidpur and Pirsohawa villages; personnel of the Capital Development Authority’s rescue 1122, including its fire-fighters which are deployed at the hilltops due to fear of outbreak of fire; the Rangers deployed at the foothills; and the police from nearby areas. They reached near the spot by 10.30 am, says DIG Bani Yamin.

From then onwards, say some rescue workers, it took them another half hour to reach the plane wreckage as not even dirt tracks lead to the site.

The rain and the slippery hillside further hindered their journey. On arrival at the spot they found the burning wreckage of the plane and remains of the passengers scattered everywhere. “Limbs could be seen all around,” said a police official.

Similarly, Mohammad Jamal, a CDA gardener, said: “I saw mutilated bodies and human flesh scattered in the area which is nearly impossible to access.”

These men started retrieving the body parts scattered all around and those trapped among the wreckage.

Most of these people, however, were not equipped to carry out a rescue operation nor were they trained for it. They did not have ropes and pickets or any gear to help them reach the mountainside during rain which had made the terrain slippery.

“At one stage, we even formed a human chain to move forward,” says a policeman who was part of the earlier group of about 60 men who are reported to have reached the spot. Many of the rescue workers themselves were injured in their bid to reach the site or to do any work there.

An eyewitness, who was present at the hills for a few hours, attests to this. “The people who got there were assessing the situation and then asking those still to arrive to bring pickets or ropes,” he told Dawn. He added that the lack of coordination was obvious from the fact that ordinary villagers used their personal cloth or chadors to collect body parts later in the day when the bad weather stopped the air rescue operation.

The CDA also testified to this; the authority acknowledged that its staff faced difficulties in the rescue work due to lack of command; bad weather, difficult accessibility in the hilly terrain and lack of training to deal with such a situation in the forest areas. Chairman Imtiaz Inayat Elahi also said that the CDA staff were trained for emergency situations in urban areas but not in the forest.

In addition, he acknowledged the lack of leadership. “When such an incident happens, we always lack command because no department knows on whose directives they have to work,” said the CDA chairman, though he claimed that the rescue operation was a well-coordinated effort of different departments such as the army, air force, National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and civil society that made it possible to recover some 90 per cent bodies,” he said.

Further credence to this argument is lent by the fact that the NDMA did not coordinate the effort either but only provided air support.

“The civil administration is leading the search and rescue operations. We are also playing our part and have some of the best pilots flying in to recover the dead. The rains made our job extremely difficult but we had Col Khalid Amir Rana and Lt-Col Safdar Tiwana carrying out the operation; these pilots flew the rescue flight on Nangaparbat,” said NDMA Chairman Lt-Gen Naveed Ahmed.

However, which department led this operation and coordinated the various departments’ efforts is still undetermined.

In the views of many present at the site, the arrival of the military by around 11.30am only added to the confusion. “They immediately threw a security cordon around the area and would not let any one through, not even the volunteers and the rescue workers,” says an eyewitness.

However, observers have pointed out that this was a routine practice as aircraft crashes entailed thorough investigations which meant that the explosion site would be examined; various pieces of the aircraft would be collected and checked and the Black Box secured. All this requires that the sight be secured.

The arrival of the military also meant that the air rescue effort had begun. Three helicopters were used to first spray some water over the fire in the wreckage. They then airdropped tools such as axes, spades and water cans to help the rescue workers.

Later the remains of the passengers were collected and airlifted by the helicopters to 6 Aviation Squadron’s heliport from where they were transported to Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences.

The air operation was halted once during the afternoon due to a fresh spell of rain but during that time the villagers and Rescue 1122 personnel heroically brought back the dead on foot through the hilly terrain that by the account of one journalist was so difficult to traverse that “you need both your hands to hold on to shrubs or the mountainside to make any progress; if you are carrying something heavy, I do not know how you would move”. Over a dozen sacks were brought back in this manner.

Till the filing of the reports, the authorities, including the police and the CDA, claimed that 90 to 95 per cent of the rescue operation i.e. the collection of the passengers’ bodies, was done before it turned dark. The rest of the bodies, they said, were buried under the plane wreckage which was why the operation would continue on Thursday.

The passengers included some prominent people such as members of a ‘youth parliament’, a female football player, Misha Dawood, and the son of a UNHCR official.

Two Americans among dead
Two American citizens were on board a Pakistani passenger plane that crashed into hills above Islamabad on Wednesday, a spokesman for the US embassy said.

“I can confirm there were two American citizens on the plane and we are working with Pakistani authorities as we normally do in cases such as this,” spokesman Richard Snelsire told AFP.

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