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2 Jets Collide in Air Over India; 350 Are Dead

Disaster: Saudi 747 taking off from New Delhi and Kazakh cargo plane tumble from the sky in history's third-worst aircraft accident. There is one survivor.

November 13, 1996|BARRY BEARAK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KHERI SANWAL, India — At least 350 people were killed Tuesday when a Saudi Arabian jumbo jet departing from New Delhi collided with an incoming Kazakh cargo plane, lighting the sky with fireballs and hurling bodies and debris onto wooded farmland about 60 miles west of India's capital.

The crash was the third most deadly in aviation history--and the worst to involve planes in midair.

The Saudi aircraft, a Boeing 747-100 bound for the Saudi cities of Dhahran and Jidda, was carrying 312 passengers and crew members, most of them Indians. Its wreckage lay strewn about the sandy soil of a just-tilled mustard field in this rural hamlet.

The other aircraft, a four-engine Russian-made Ilyushin IL-76, was on a flight from Shymkent, Kazakhstan, with 28 Kazakh passengers and an 11-member Russian crew aboard. The plane, which had been chartered by a clothing company, fell about six miles from the Saudi jet.

Four passengers initially survived the crash, but three of them died on the way to the hospital. The fourth was still battling for life, police at the scene of the Saudi wreckage said.

The American pilot of a U.S. Air Force C-141 transport plane witnessed the accident from an altitude of about 20,000 feet and about 50 miles away. He was bringing in supplies for the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi.

"We noticed out of our right-hand [side of the plane] a large cloud lit up with an orange glow," the captain told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The glow-intensity of the cloud became dimmer, and the two fireballs descended and became fireballs on the ground."

The Kazakh plane was supposed to be flying at 15,000 feet and the Saudi jet at 14,000 feet, according to Ranjan Chatterjee, chairman of air traffic control at New Delhi's Indira Gandhi International Airport. "For all we know, this could have just been a misunderstanding," he said. "They were given different heights. But somewhere between those two altitudes, a mistake was made."

A difference in altitude of 1,000 feet is not an unusual air traffic pattern. But lately the Indian airport has had problems because of language difficulties among Russian pilots who have only minimal training in English.

While civil aviation officials urged against speculation, the Air Traffic Controllers Guild of India suggested in a statement that the pilots of the Kazakhstan Airlines plane, working with metric instruments, may also have misunderstood the instructions they received--in foot measurements--from the control tower.

The collision occurred at 6:40 p.m. as dusk was overtaking a calm but hazy evening. Rajinder Soni, owner of a jewelry store, was sitting at his sister's house about 35 miles from the crash site when he saw a blast of fire.

"There was this sound, like thunder," he said. "Then I saw something burning as it fell from the sky. I thought it must have been the explosion of a bomb. We then saw three separate balls of light descending to the ground. I jumped on my scooter and went to see where they had landed."

In Kheri Sanwal, a village of 3,000 to 4,000 people, Soni found the wreckage of the Saudi 747-100. "There were bodies scattered all over," he said.

Nine hours after the collision, several small fires were still flaming amid the debris. Rescue workers had given up on any chance of finding more survivors. Police were still looking for the flight recorders, which hold flight data and recordings of transmissions from the cockpit.

But no effort was being made to find the kind of evidence that might come from a meticulous search for clues at the crash site. Villagers and reporters were allowed to shamble through the area, their feet making steady crunching noises against charred remnants. Observers casually picked up objects or kicked them around.

Much of the rubble was burned as black as a firefighter's boot, though occasionally an unscathed shoe or jacket was noticeable for its remaining color.

"We had a team of 100 doctors rush here from around the district," said Mohammed Akil, superintendent of police for the local district. "Some were private physicians who volunteered. There was not much for them to do."

The Saudi jet had been in the air only seven minutes before the accident. Some reports indicate that two Americans were aboard the flight, although officials at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi could not confirm this.

Saudi Arabian Airlines is the largest carrier in the Middle East. It flies 12.5 million passengers a year. The captain of the disastrous flight was a veteran pilot, the airline said.

Mohammed Shakeel Khan, weighed down with sadness over the death of his younger brother, sister-in-law and infant nephew, nevertheless said of the airline: "Saudi is one of the safest. My whole family has always flown it."

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