At least 18, including two pilots, were killed and more than 120 hospitalised after an Air India Express plane crashlanded in India's Kerala state, but rescuers say the death toll would have been much higher if the aircraft had caught fire.

A security official inspects the site where a passenger plane crashed when it overshot the runway at the Calicut International Airport in Karipur, in the southern state of Kerala, India, August 8, 2020.
A security official inspects the site where a passenger plane crashed when it overshot the runway at the Calicut International Airport in Karipur, in the southern state of Kerala, India, August 8, 2020. (Reuters)

Indian authorities have practised for years for a jet overshooting the "table-top" runway at Kozhikode airport, but still local resident Fazal Puthiyakath was not prepared for the "blood and death" of the real thing.

The 32-year-old businessman and his neighbours were first on the scene after an Air India Express plane crashed over the runway of the Calicut International Airport in heavy rain near the southern city of Kozhikode on Friday, killing 18 people and injuring more than 120.

Puthiyakath and others rushed out after hearing "a blast-like" roar.

"All that we could hear were screams all around. People were soaked in blood everywhere, some had fractures, some were unconscious," he told AFP.

The impact was so brutal that the nose of the Boeing 737 finished about 20 metres from the back half of the jet.

Kozhikode airport in southern India's Kerala state is considered a potential hazard because it has a "table-top" runway with a steep bank at either end.

"I have seen the mock trials from a distance, airport authorities conduct it with a crashed dummy aircraft," said Puthiyakath.

"But this was just something else in reality."

"You realise that no matter how prepared you are, it is completely different on the ground when you actually have blood and death around."

Stranded by virus

The black box and cockpit voice recorder have been recovered from the site of the aircraft crash, a top official at the Directorate General of Civil Aviation told Reuters on Saturday.

The flight was one of hundreds in recent months to bring home tens of thousands of Indians stranded abroad by the coronavirus pandemic, many of them in Gulf countries.

Kerala's health minister K.K. Shailaja asked all those involved in the rescue to go into isolation because of the risk of catching the coronavirus from passengers. 

"We didn't bother about who had Covid or not. All that we had in mind was to save as many lives as possible," said Puthiyakath.

Despite the shock, he drove one man to a local hospital in his car.

"All I heard throughout the drive was him crying about his wife and child. I can never forget that. I haven't checked the car but I am sure there are bloodstains on the back seat.

Junaid Mukkood, 34, who also lives nearby, said he heard two big bangs.

"Since it was raining, I thought it was probably lightning," he said. "The plane had skidded off the runway, fallen and split in two. The cockpit was completely rammed into a wall."

"We saw the pilots but they were still strapped to their seats and there was no gap for us to rescue them."

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Tractors and cranes had to move the debris to free the bodies of Deepak Vasant Sathe, a former Indian Air Force test pilot, and Akhilesh Kumar.

Mukkood said locals volunteered to help rescuers who were overcome by the size of the task.

"I had a child in my arms. She had bits of the debris on her," he added. "The rain and the darkness only made it worse for us to find people."

Officials said four of the dead from India's worst air disaster in a decade were children.

Condolences from Pakistan

According to flight documents seen by AFP, 15 of those on board had lost their jobs and 12 were returning for a medical emergency. Two were coming back to be married.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted his condolences.

"My thoughts are with those who lost their loved ones," Modi said.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said he was saddened by the "loss of innocent lives".

In May, a Pakistan International Airlines flight ploughed into a crowded Karachi neighbourhood, killing 97 people aboard and a child on the ground.

The last major plane crash in India was in 2010 when an Air India Express Boeing 737-800 from Dubai to Mangalore overshot the runway killing 158 people.

Broke in two

Indian media quoted air traffic control officials and a flight tracker website as showing the Boeing 737 twice circled and started to land before it crashed at the third attempt.

The jet repeatedly jumped up and down in buffeting winds before the landing, survivors told Indian television.

Several people on board had to be cut out with special equipment. It took three hours to clear all the injured and bodies, officials said.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies