A plane flying 19 people towards Mount Everest went down in flames on the outskirts of the Nepalese capital yesterday, killing everyone on board including seven Britons and five Chinese, police said.
The pilot of the domestic Sita Air flight reported trouble two minutes after take-off and appeared to have been trying to turn back, said Kathmandu airport official Ratish Chandra Suman. The crash site is only 500 metres from the airport.
Witnesses described seeing flames coming from one of the propeller-driven Dornier plane's wings moments before it hit the ground, while airport authorities said the pilot had reported hitting a vulture shortly after take off.
"We could hear people inside the aircraft screaming, but we couldn't throw water at the plane to put out the fire because we were scared that the engines were about to explode," said Tulasha Pokharel, a 26-year-old housewife who said she was one of the first on the scene.
Suman said he could not confirm whether the plane was already on fire before it crashed. Cellphone video shot by locals showed that the front section of the plane was on fire when it first hit the ground and that the pilot apparently had attempted to land the plane on open ground beside a river.
Emergency workers lined up the 19 corpses - which included seven Nepalese along with the Britons and Chinese - near the smouldering wreckage as they picked through passengers' belongings to identify the dead.
Xinhua identified the Chinese victims as Wu Hui, Wu Qianming, Wu Lin, Wang Jhihua and Yang Chen.
Airline officials identified the British crash victims as Raymond Eagle, 58, Christopher Franc Davey, 51, Vincent Kelly, 52, Darren Kelly, 45, Timothy Oakes, 57, Stephen Holding, 60, and Benjamin Ogden, 27.
The Nepalese passengers were identified as Kumar Marshyangdi Magar, Lakpa Noru Sherpa, D. Rai and M.K. Tamang. The crew members were pilot Bijay Tandukar, co-pilot Takashi Thapa and flight attendant Ruju Shakya.
The British group was due to go on a 16-day trek to three high passes and the Everest Base Camp, their agents said.
A crowd of thousands quickly gathered around the riverbank, with many shocked bystanders clutching prayer beads and wailing in anguish as they surveyed the devastation.
The weather in Kathmandu and surrounding areas was clear yesterday morning, and the plane was one of the first of the day to take off from Kathmandu's Tribhuvan International Airport. Other flights reported no problems, and the airport remained open and operated normally after the crash.
"The pilots seem to have tried to land it safely on the banks of the river, but unfortunately the plane caught fire," police spokesman Binod Singh said, adding that the accident occurred at around 6.30am.
"The record on aircraft flying hours is lax," said Toya Dahal, an air safety specialist with the Initiative for Aviation Safety in Nepal, a lobby group promoting air safety. "Also, the airlines don't conduct routine maintenance," he added, and that they also took risks by flying planes during poor weather conditions.
He cast doubt on the idea that a bird strike had brought down the plane. "This plane with double engines would have landed safely even after it was struck by a bird. If one engine is damaged, another engine can support the aircraft," he said.
"It looks like the pilot, after noticing technical problems, took the best possible decision to force-land the plane."
Additional reporting by Associated Press, Reuters