By The Associated Press
KATHMANDU, Nepal — A plane crash at Nepal’s main airport killed 49 of the 71 people on board, police said Tuesday, as an investigation was ordered into the cause of an accident that occurred after apparent confusion over landing instructions.
The plane, which was coming from Bangladesh, was flying low and erratically before striking the ground and erupting in flames on Monday. US-Bangla Airlines Flight BS211 from Dhaka to Kathmandu was carrying 67 passengers and four crew members.
In a recording posted by air traffic monitoring website liveatc.net, the pilot asked for permission to land from the north, which an air traffic controller granted. Less than a minute later, the pilot said he was ready to land from the south, and the controller cleared the plane to land from that direction.
A separate conversation between the tower and a Nepali pilot added to the sense of miscommunication between the controllers and the pilot of the Bangladeshi plane before the crash.
“Looks like they are really confused,” one man says in Nepali, talking about Flight BS211.
“They appear to be extremely disoriented,” another man says.
Just before landing, the pilot asks, “Are we cleared to land?”
Moments later, the controller comes back on, using a panicked tone rarely heard in such conversations, and tells the pilot, “I say again, turn!”
Seconds later, the controller orders fire trucks onto the runway.
Kathmandu officials and the airline laid the blame for the accident on each other.
The airport’s general manager told reporters Monday that the pilot did not follow the control tower’s instructions and approached the airport’s only runway from the wrong direction.
“The airplane was not properly aligned with the runway. The tower repeatedly asked if the pilot was OK and the reply was ‘Yes,'” said the general manager, Raj Kumar Chetri.
Imran Asif, CEO of US-Bangla Airlines, told reporters in Dhaka, “We cannot claim this definitely at the moment, but we are suspecting that Kathmandu ATC tower might have misled our pilots to land on the wrong runway.”
Asif added that after hearing the recording between the tower and the pilots, “we assumed that there was no negligence by our pilots.”
He said that the pilot, who survived the accident, was a former air force officer. Capt. Abid Sultan had flown the Bombardier Dash 8 for more than 1,700 hours and was also a flying instructor with the airline.
Prior to the crash, the plane circled Tribhuvan International Airport twice as it waited for clearance to land, Mohammed Selim, the airline’s manager in Kathmandu, told Dhaka-based Somoy TV.
Police spokesman Manoj Neupane said Tuesday that 49 people were confirmed to have been killed and 22 injured. The injured were being treated in various hospitals in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital.
Autopsies on the dead were being performed at the Kathmandu Medical College and Teaching Hospital morgue, where some 200 relatives waited to hear about their loved ones.
Dr. M.A. Ansari of the hospital’s forensic department said positively identifying all the dead could take as long as a week because many of the bodies were badly burned. By late Tuesday morning, four bodies had been identified.
Anita Bajacharya waited at the hospital with her parents and other relatives for details on her 23-year-old sister, a medical student who had just finished school in Bangladesh and was returning home on the flight. The sister, Asma Shakya, had called her mother from the airport, excited about returning home. Now her family sat outside a hospital waiting for her body to be identified.
The government has ordered an investigation into the crash.
One witness, Amanda Summers, an American working in Nepal, said the plane swerved repeatedly as it prepared to land. At one point it seemed like it would crash into the surrounding mountains, she said, adding that it seemed to have made a landing before two quick explosions were heard and it burst into flames.
Fire crews put out the flames quickly, perhaps within a minute, Summers said, though for a time clouds of thick, dark smoke rose into the sky above the city.
US-Bangla spokesman Kamrul Islam said the plane was carrying 32 passengers from Bangladesh, 33 from Nepal and one each from China and the Maldives. He did not provide the nationalities of the four crew members.
US-Bangla operates Boeing 737-800 and smaller Bombardier Dash 8 planes, the model of the plane that crashed.
The airline is based in Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, and flies domestically and internationally. The parent company, part of US-Bangla Group, is also involved in real estate, education and agriculture.
Kathmandu’s airport has been the site of several deadly crashes. In September 2012, a Sita Air turboprop plane carrying trekkers to Mount Everest hit a bird and crashed shortly after takeoff, killing all 19 people on board.