Pilot's panicked call moments before crash in busy neighbourhood

A pilot’s panicked call before a plane crashed into a busy neighbourhood, killing at least 57 on board, has been revealed.

The Pakistan International Airlines jet, an Airbus A320, crashed and destroyed at least five houses in Pakistan’s southern city of Karachi after an apparent engine failure during landing on Friday about 2.39pm local time.

Ninety-eight people were on board. Officials said there were two survivors from the plane but they also found at least 57 bodies in the wreckage. It was unknown how many people on the ground were hurt.

The pilot was heard transmitting a mayday to the tower shortly before the crash of Flight 8303, which was flying from Lahore to Karachi and carrying many travelling for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr.

Video on social media appeared to show the jet flying low with flames shooting from one of its engines.

The plane went down northeast of Jinnah International Airport in the poor and congested residential area known as Model Colony between houses that were smashed by its wings. 

Police in protective masks struggled to clear away crowds amid the smoke and dust so ambulances and firetrucks could reach the crash site.

As darkness fell, crews worked under floodlights, and a portable morgue was set up. The Sindh provincial health department said it had recovered 57 bodies, while PIA chairman Arshad Malik said finding all the dead could take two to three days.

Pakistan’s civil aviation authority said the plane had 91 passengers and a crew of seven. The A320 can carry up to 180 passengers, depending on how its cabin is configured.

At least two people aboard survived, according to the health department, revising an earlier statement that three were alive.

People comfort a relative of a victim near the crash site. Source: Getty Images

Local TV stations showed video of a man on a stretcher they identified as Zafar Masood, the head of the Bank of Punjab. Mr Malik later confirmed that Mr Masood survived the crash.

The Sindh provincial government press department later distributed a photo depicting a second survivor identified as Mohammad Zubair, recovering in a Karachi hospital.

At least three people on the ground were injured.

Mr Malik announced an investigation into the crash, adding that the aircraft was in good working order.

Pakistan had resumed domestic flights earlier this week ahead of Eid-al Fitr, which marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan. Pakistan has been in a countrywide lockdown since mid-March because of the coronavirus, and the airline has been using social distancing guidelines on its flights by leaving every other seat vacant.

Southern Sindh province, of which Karachi is the capital, is the epicentre of the virus infections in Pakistan. The province has nearly 20,000 of the country’s more than 50,000 cases.

Security personnel look through wreckage on the streets of Karachi. Source: Getty Images

Pilot’s final exchange

A transmission of the pilot’s final exchange with air traffic control, posted on the website LiveATC.net, indicated he had failed to land and was circling to make another attempt.

“We are proceeding direct, sir — we have lost engine,” a pilot said.

“Confirm your attempt on belly,” the air traffic controller said, offering a runway.

“Sir, mayday, mayday, mayday, mayday Pakistan 8303,” the pilot said before the transmission ended.

In one of the radio communications, at least one exchange from the flight sounded like a warning alarm was sounding in the cockpit.

Rescue workers gather at the site after a Pakistan International Airlines aircraft crashed in a residential area in Karachi. Source: Getty

A resident, Abdul Rahman, said he saw the jet circle at least three times, appearing to try to land before it crashed.

Prime Minister Imran Khan tweeted: “Shocked & saddened by the PIA crash... Immediate inquiry will be instituted. Prayers & condolences go to families of the deceased.”

Science Minister Fawad Ahmed Chaudhry said this year has been a “catastrophe — just survival is so difficult”, referring to the pandemic and now the tragedy of the plane crash.

“What is most unfortunate and sad is whole families have died, whole families who were travelling together for the Eid holiday,” he said in a telephone interview in the capital of Islamabad.

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