Dozens of rescue workers and onlookers crowded near a steep gorge outside a resort in central Nepal where a regional passenger plane crashed Sunday, as rescuers combed through debris at the edge of the cliff and in the valley below.
So far, 68 people have been confirmed dead after a regional passenger plane with 72 people on board crashed in a strait while landing at a newly opened airport in the resort town of Pokhara, according to an announcement posted on Twitter by the country’s civil aviation authority. It is the country’s worst plane crash in three decades.
The agency said in a statement that four people are still missing. The agency said that 53 of the plane’s passengers were Nepalis, five Indians, four Russians, two Koreans, one from Australia, one from Argentina, one from Ireland and one from France. There were four crew members.
It was not immediately clear what caused the accident.
A witness said he saw the plane spin wildly in the air after it began trying to land, watching from his balcony. Gaurav Gurung said the plane fell from the nose to the left and then crashed into the gorge.
Bishnu Tiwari, a local resident who rushed to the crash site near the City River to help search for bodies, said rescue efforts were hampered by thick smoke and raging fire.
“The fire was so hot that we couldn’t get close to the wreckage. I heard one man crying for help, but because of the flames and smoke we couldn’t help him,” Tiwari said.
At the crash site, about 1.6 kilometers (nearly a mile) from Pokhara International Airport, rescuers sprayed fire hoses and ropes to another burning section of wreckage below. Firefighters carried some of the bodies, which were burned beyond recognition, to hospitals, where grieving relatives gathered. At Kathmandu airport, family members appeared dazed as they were escorted and at times exchanged heated words with officials while they waited for information.
“The plane caught fire after it crashed. There was smoke everywhere,” Jurong said.
The aviation authority said the plane’s last contact with the airport was near City Gorge at 10:50 a.m. before it crashed.
The twin-engine ATR 72, operated by Nepal Airlines Yeti, was on its way from the capital, Kathmandu, to Pokhara, a 27-minute flight. No survivors have been found yet. On Sunday, the company announced the suspension of all regular flights on Monday.
Tek Bahadur KC, a senior administrative official in Kaski district, said he expected rescue workers to find more bodies at the bottom of the valley.
Pictures and videos posted on Twitter showed plumes of smoke rising from the crash site, about 1.6 kilometers (nearly a mile) from Pokhara International Airport. The fuselage was divided into multiple parts scattered down the strait.
Firefighters carried the bodies, some burnt beyond recognition, to hospitals where grieving relatives gathered. At Kathmandu airport, family members appeared dazed as they were escorted and at times exchanged heated words with officials while they waited for information.
Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahl, who rushed to the airport after the accident, formed a committee to investigate the accident.
“The accident was tragic. The full force of the Nepalese army and police has been deployed to the rescue,” he said.
South Korea’s foreign ministry said in a statement that it was still trying to confirm the fate of two South Korean passengers and had sent personnel to the scene. The Russian ambassador to Nepal, Alexei Novikov, confirmed the deaths of four Russian citizens on board.
Omar Gutierrez, the governor of the Argentine province of Neuquen, stated on his official Twitter account that the Argentine passenger on the flight was Janet Pallavicino from his province.
Palavecino’s Facebook page says she was the manager of Hotel Suizo in Neuquen.
On the page, she described herself as a fan of travel and adventure tourism. “I’m passionate about the mountains! Riding my bike cycling. I love my garden and the countryside. I love painting!” I wrote.
Her account contains many pictures of her in the mountains.
The type of aircraft in question, the ATR 72, has been used by many airlines around the world for short regional flights. Introduced in the late 1980s by a French and Italian partnership, the model plane has been involved in several fatal accidents over the years. In 2018, an ATR 72 operated by Iran’s Aseman Airlines crashed into a foggy mountainous area, killing all 65 people on board.
In Taiwan, two previous ATR 72-500 and ATR 72-600 accidents occurred just months apart.
In July 2014, a TransAsia ATR 72-500 crashed while trying to land on the picturesque Penghu archipelago between Taiwan and China, killing all 48 people on board. An ATR 72-600 operated by the same Taiwanese airline crashed shortly after takeoff in Taipei in February 2015 after one of its engines failed and the second was shut down, apparently by mistake.
The 2015 crash, which was captured in dramatic footage that showed the plane crashing into a taxi as it spun out of control, killed 43, and prompted authorities to ground all Taiwanese ATR 72s for a time. TransAsia suspended all flights in 2016 and later ceased operations.
ATR identified the aircraft involved in Sunday’s incident as an ATR 72-500 in a tweet. According to the plane’s tracking data from flightradar24.com, the plane was 15 years old and “equipped with an outdated transponder with unreliable data.” It was previously flown by India’s Kingfisher Airlines and Thailand’s Nok Air before it was taken over by Yeti in 2019, according to Airfleets.net records.
The company’s spokesperson, Sudarshan Partola, said that the Yeti Airlines fleet consists of six ATR72-500 aircraft.
Pokhara, located 200 kilometers (125 miles) west of Kathmandu, is the gateway to the Annapurna Circuit, a popular hiking trail in the Himalayas. The city’s new international airport only started operating two weeks ago. It was built with Chinese construction and financial support. Chinese Ambassador to Nepal Chen Song said in a tweet that he was “deeply shocked” when he learned of the incident.
“At this difficult time, our thoughts are with the Nepalese people. I would like to express my deepest condolences to the victims, and our sincere sympathy to the families of the victims,” he wrote.
Sunday’s accident is the deadliest in Nepal since 1992, when 167 people on board a Pakistan International Airlines plane were killed when it crashed into a hill while trying to land in Kathmandu.
Home to eight of the 14 highest mountains in the world, including Mount Everest, Nepal has a history of aviation accidents. According to the Aviation Safety Foundation’s aviation safety database, there have been 42 fatal aircraft accidents in Nepal since 1946.
Last year, 22 people died when a plane crashed into a mountainside in Nepal. In 2016, a Tara Air Twin Otter flying from Pokhara to Kathmandu crashed after take-off, killing all 23 people on board.
In 2012, an Agni Air flight flying from Pokhara to Jomsom crashed, killing 15 people. Six people survived. In 2014, a Nepal Airlines flight traveling from Pokhara to Jumla crashed, killing all 18 people on board.
In 1992, all 167 people on board a Pakistan International Airlines plane were killed when it crashed into a hill while trying to land in Kathmandu.
The European Union has banned airlines from Nepal from flying into the 27-nation bloc since 2013, citing poor safety standards. In 2017, the International Civil Aviation Organization noted improvements in Nepal’s aviation sector, but the EU continues to call for administrative reforms.
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