KATHMANDU, Nepal (AP) — At least 68 people have been killed in a plane crash, according to Nepal’s Civil Aviation Authority. A regional airliner with 72 people on board plunged into a canyon while landing at a newly opened airport in the resort town of Pokhara on Sunday, in the country’s deadliest aircraft accident in 30 years.
Dozens of rescuers and bystanders gathered near the steep canyon on Sunday afternoon as rescuers cleared debris from the edge of the cliff and the gorge below.
Bishnu Tiwari, a local resident who rushed to the crash site to help search for the bodies, said rescue efforts were hampered by thick smoke and raging fire that engulfed the plane.
“The flames were so hot we couldn’t get close to the wreckage. I heard a man calling for help but we couldn’t help him because of the flames and smoke,” Tiwari said.
It is unclear what caused the accident.
An eyewitness said he was on the patio of his home and saw the plane spin violently through the air after it attempted to land. Gaurav Gurung said the plane fell nose first to the left before crashing into a canyon.
At the crash site near the Seti River, about 1.6 kilometers (nearly a mile) from Pokhara International Airport, rescuers sprayed fire hoses and dragged ropes to another smoldering part of the wreckage below. Some of the bodies, burned beyond recognition, were carried by firefighters to a hospital where distraught relatives gathered. At the Kathmandu airport where the flight departed, the family appeared distraught as they were escorted into the airport, chatting with officials at intervals as they waited for news.
“The plane was on fire after it crashed. There was smoke everywhere,” Gurung said.
Aviation authorities said the plane last made contact with the airport at 10.50am from near Seti Gorge before it crashed.
The twin-engine ATR 72 aircraft operated by Nepal Yeti Airlines took 27 minutes to fly from the capital Kathmandu to Pokhara. The Nepal Civil Aviation Authority said in a statement that there were 68 passengers on board, including 15 foreigners and four crew members. The foreigners included five Indians, four Russians, two South Koreans, and one each from Ireland, Australia, Argentina and France. No survivors have been found yet. The search continued Sunday night.
Kaski District Senior Administrative Officer Tek Bahadur KC said he expected rescuers to find more bodies at the bottom of the canyon.
Pictures and videos shared on Twitter showed smoke billowing from the crash site as rescuers, Nepali soldiers and hordes of people gathered around the wreckage looking for survivors. The plane’s fuselage was broken into sections and scattered in the canyon.
Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, who rushed to the airport after the accident, formed a team to investigate the accident.
“The incident is tragic. The Nepalese army and police are fully engaged in the rescue,” he said.
In a statement, South Korea’s foreign ministry said it was still working to confirm the fate of the two South Korean passengers and had sent staff to the scene. The Russian ambassador to Nepal, Alexei Novikov, confirmed the death of the four Russian citizens on board.
The aircraft type involved, an ATR 72, is used by several airlines around the world for short-haul regional flights. Launched by a French-Italian partnership in the late 1980s, the model aircraft has been involved in several fatal accidents over the years. In 2018, an ATR 72 operated by Iran’s Aseman airline crashed in foggy mountains, killing all 65 people on board.
In Taiwan, two earlier accidents involving ATR 72-500 and ATR 72-600 aircraft occurred only a few months apart.
In July 2014, a TransAsia Airways ATR 72-500 crashed while attempting to land in the scenic Penghu Islands between Taiwan and China, killing 48 people on board. In February 2015, an ATR 72-600 operated by the same Taiwanese airline crashed shortly after takeoff from Taipei after one of its engines failed and the second apparently shut down by mistake.
The 2015 crash, captured in dramatic footage showing the plane slamming into a taxi as it lost control, killed 43 people and prompted authorities to ground all Taiwan-registered ATR 72s for a period. TransAsia ceased all flights in 2016 and subsequently went out of business.
ATR identified the aircraft involved in Sunday’s crash as the ATR 72-500 in a tweet. According to flightradar24.com aircraft tracking data, the plane was 15 years old and “equipped with an old transponder with unreliable data”. Before Yeti took over in 2019, it was operated by India’s Kingfisher Airlines and Thailand’s Nok Air, according to records on Airfleets.net.
Yeti Airlines has a fleet of six ATR72-500 aircraft, said company spokesman Sudarshan Bartaula.
Pokhara, 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 construction and financial support from China. Chen Song, China’s ambassador to Nepal, said on Twitter that he was “very shocked” to learn of the accident.
“We stand with the people of Nepal during this difficult time. We would like to express our deep condolences to the victims and sincere condolences to the families of the victims.”
Sunday’s crash was Nepal’s deadliest since 1992, when a Pakistan International Airlines plane plunged into a mountain while trying to land in Kathmandu, killing all 167 people on board.
Nepal is home to eight of the world’s 14 tallest mountains, including Mount Everest, which has a history of air crashes. Since 1946, there have been 42 fatal plane crashes in Nepal, according to the Flight Safety Foundation’s aviation safety database.
A plane crashed on a mountainside last year, killing 22 in Nepal. In 2016, a Tara Air Twin Otter flying from Pokhara to Kathmandu crashed after takeoff, killing all 23 people on board.
In 2012, an Agni Air plane flying from Pokhara to Jomsom crashed, killing 15 people. Six people survived. In 2014, a Nepal Airlines plane flying from Pokhara to Jumla crashed, killing all 18 people on board.
In 1992, a Pakistan International Airlines plane crashed into a mountain while trying to land in Kathmandu, killing all 167 people on board.
Since 2013, the European Union has banned Nepal Airlines from flying to the 27-nation bloc, citing weak safety standards. In 2017, the International Civil Aviation Organization said Nepal’s aviation industry had improved, but the EU continued to demand administrative reforms.
Saaliq reported from New Delhi. Elise Morton in London, Kim Tong-hyung in Seoul, South Korea, and Adam Schreck in Bangkok contributed to the report.