At least 68 people were confirmed dead and hope faded for any survivors after a plane with 72 onboard crashed in Nepal, the Himalayan country’s deadliest aviation disaster in three decades.
“Thirty-one [bodies] have been taken to hospitals,” said police official, AK Chhetri, adding that another 36 were still in the 300-metre gorge the aircraft plunged into at the site in Pokhara in central Nepal.
The army said they had manage to retrieve 66 bodies from the debris of the crash but rescue efforts had been hampered by the treacherous terrain. “The aircraft crashed into a gorge so it is difficult to bring the bodies. Search and rescue is ongoing. No survivors have been found yet,” said army spokesperson, Krishna Prasad Bhandari.
Hundreds of rescuers from the army and the police were deployed to the scene. The rescue operation was halted on Sunday evening but authorities said there were still more bodies to be retrieved.
Yeti Airlines, which operated the flight, confirmed there were 72 people onboard – 68 passengers and four crew. According to an airport official, there were 15 foreign nationals among the passengers, including one Australian, one French, one Argentinian, four Russians, five Indians, two South Koreans and one person from Ireland.
The twin-propeller aircraft had been travelling from the capital, Kathmandu, to the city of Pokhara in central Nepal, a popular gateway to the Himalayan mountains for religious pilgrims and international trekkers.
The flight took off at 10.30am on Sunday morning and had made final contact with air traffic control at 10.50am. Seconds later it crashed on the banks of the Seti Gandaki river shortly before it was about to land at Pokhara international airport. The airport had been newly inaugurated just two weeks ago.
Smoke rises from deadly Nepal plane crash – video
Pokhara airport spokesperson, Anup Joshi, said the aircraft crashed on approach, adding that the “plane cruised at 12,500ft and was on a normal descent”. The weather on Sunday was clear.
According to flight tracker data, the ATR 72-500 plane was 15 years old and “equipped with an old transponder with unreliable data”. In a statement ATR, a Franco-Italian aircraft manufacturer, said they were supporting an investigation into the crash.
Footage shared on social media, which appeared to be shot shortly after the crash, showed the plane engulfed in flames on the ground as black smoke billowed into the sky from debris strewn across the crash site.
A video clip showed the plane flying at a dangerously low altitude over a residential area, followed by a loud explosion which was heard by local villagers.
The wreckage was still burning after the crash and there was thick acrid smoke, making it difficult for rescue workers to recover the bodies. “All agencies are now focused on first dousing the fire and rescuing the passengers,” said a local official, Gurudutta Dhakal.
Rescuers gather at the site of the plane crash in Pokhara
Rescuers gather at the site of the plane crash in Pokhara on Sunday. Photograph: Krishna Mani Baral/AFP/Getty Images
Nepal’s prime minister, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, called an emergency meeting after the crash. The Nepal government has also formed a five-member commission of inquiry to investigate the cause of the incident and instructed the authorities to conduct a technical inspection of all domestic flight aircraft.
Nepal’s air industry has boomed in recent years, carrying goods and people between hard-to-reach areas, as well as foreign trekkers and climbers. But it has also been plagued by poor safety due to insufficient training and maintenance. In May 2022, all 22 people onboard a plane operated by Nepali carrier Tara Air died when it crashed, and in March 2018, 51 people died when a US-Bangla Airlines plane crashed near Kathmandu.
The European Union has banned all Nepal airlines from its airspace over safety concerns.
The Himalayan country also has some of the world’s most remote and tricky runways, flanked by snow-capped peaks with approaches that pose a challenge even for accomplished pilots.