KARACHI – When the plane jolted violently, Mohammad Zubair thought it was turbulence. Then the pilot came on the intercom to warn that the landing could be “troublesome.”
Moments later, the Pakistan International Airlines flight crashed into a crowded neighborhood near Karachi's international airport, killing 97 people, all of whom are believed to be passengers and crew members. Zubair was one of just two surviving passengers.
Meeran Yousaf, the provincial Health Department spokeswoman, said only 21 of the bodies from Friday's crash have been identified and that most of the bodies were badly burned. Eight people on the ground were injured. Three remained hospitalized and all residents are accounted for, she said.
The plane crashed at 2:39 p.m. near Jinnah International Airport, in the poor and congested residential area known as Model Colony. PIA spokesman Abdullah Hafiz Khan said the aircraft destroyed or heavily damaged 18 homes.
Civil Aviation Authority spokesman Abdul Sattar Kokhar said the Airbus A320 was carrying 91 passengers and eight crew members. The only other survivor of the crash was Zafar Masood, a bank executive.
In a telephone interview from his hospital bed, Zubair, a mechanical engineer, said flight PK8303 had taken off on time from the eastern city of Lahore at 1 p.m. It was a smooth, uneventful flight until the aircraft began its descent near Karachi shortly before 3 p.m.
He said the aircraft made three attempts to land, once seeming to almost land and then take off again.
“Suddenly the plane jerked violently, once and then again,” said Zubair. The aircraft turned and the pilot's voice came over the intercom. They were experiencing engine trouble and the landing could be “troublesome,” the pilot said. That was the last thing Zubair remembered until he woke up in a scene of chaos.
“I saw so much smoke and fire. I heard people crying, children crying.”
He crawled his way out of the smoke and rubble, and was eventually pulled from the ground and rushed into an ambulance.
“I'm very thankful to Allah for granting me a second life," he said. "It is a miracle."
Pakistan had only earlier this week resumed domestic flights ahead of Eid-al Fitr, which marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan. Many of the passengers aboard the flight were families returning home for the holiday, said Science Minister Fawad Ahmed Chaudhry.
Between the coronavirus pandemic and the plane crash, this year has been a “catastrophe," he said.
“What is most unfortunate and sad is whole families have died, whole families who were travelling together for the Eid holiday,” he told The Associated Press.
Social media and local news reports said Zara Abid, an actor and an award-winning model, was among those killed. A senior banker, his wife and three young children were also reportedly killed. Shabaz Hussein, whose mother died in the crash, told The Associated Press he identified her body at a local hospital and was waiting to take it away for burial.
The airliner plowed into the crowded Model Colony neighborhood as many of the men of of the area were gathered at nearby mosques for weekly Friday prayers, perhaps explaining why the number of injured on the ground was just eight, mostly women and children. Only three were still hospitalized, said the Sindh Health Department spokeswoman, and all the residents of the 18 homes that were damaged by the crash were accounted for.
“The men were praying at the nearby mosque, Masjid-e-Bilal, which is 100 meters from where the plane crashed,” said resident Amir Chaudhry, whose sister was injured when the airliner crashed into the neighborhood.
Pakistan has been in a countrywide lockdown since mid-March because of the coronavirus, and when flights resumed every other seat was left vacant to promote social distancing.
Southern Sindh province, of which Karachi is the capital, is the epicenter of Pakistan's outbreak, with nearly 20,000 of the country’s more than 50,000 cases. Pakistan has reported 1,101 deaths from the COVID-19 disease caused by the virus.
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,” the 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.
PIA Chairman Arshad Malik told reporters Friday in Karachi that an independent inquiry would be held but said the aircraft was in good working order. On Saturday, Pakistan's Aviation Minister Ghulam Sarwar Khan told reporters the inquiry report will be done in three months and its findings presented to Parliament. The black box that will detail the final moments of the flight was recovered within hours of the crash and is with authorities.
Airworthiness documents showed the plane last received a government check on Nov. 1, 2019. PIA’s chief engineer signed a separate certificate April 28 saying all maintenance had been conducted. It said “the aircraft is fully airworthy and meets all the safety” standards.
Ownership records for the Airbus A320 showed China Eastern Airlines flew the plane from 2004 until 2014. The plane then entered PIA’s fleet, leased from GE Capital Aviation Services.
Airbus said the plane had logged 47,100 flight hours and 25,860 flights as of Friday. The plane had two CFM56-5B4 engines.
Airbus said it would provide technical assistance to investigators in France and Pakistan, as well as the airline and engine manufacturers.
“We at Airbus are deeply saddened by the tragic news of flight #PK8303,” tweeted Executive Director Guillaume Faury. “In aviation, we all work hard to prevent this. Airbus will provide full assistance to the investigating authorities.”
Associated Press writers Jon Gambrell, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Kathy Gannon and Munir Ahmed in Islamabad, and Asim Tanvir, in Multan, Pakistan, contributed to this report.