Thursday, October 9, 2008

Poor visibility blamed for Everest plane crash

KATHMANDU (AFP) — Poor visibility caused a plane to crash at a tiny airstrip in Nepal's Mount Everest region killing 18 people, including 12 German tourists, two Australians and four Nepalese, officials said Thursday.

The Yeti Airlines Twin Otter plane flying from the capital Kathmandu burst into flames Wednesday morning at the airstrip in eastern Nepal -- the gateway to the scenic region for thousands of trekkers and mountaineers.

"The plane crash was due to poor visibility," Mohan Adhikari, a senior airport official, told AFP.

Thousands of travellers use the airport at Lukla, 140 kilometres (90 miles) northeast of Kathmandu, to access the stunning Himalayan range that forms Nepal's northern border with Chinese-controlled Tibet.

Weather in the region is known to change frequently and swiftly.

Pilots are supposed to have five kilometres (three miles) of visibility to land at the 550-metre-long (1,815 foot) sloping airstrip perched on a hillside 2,757 metres above sea level, Adhikari said.

"When the flight left Kathmandu they had five kilometres of visibility at Lukla but by the time they arrived after 40 minutes of flying, visibility suddenly worsened," said Adhikari.

"Two planes had already landed that morning so the pilot (of the plane that crashed) must have thought he could too," he said.

The plane slammed into the hillside and erupted in flames around 50 metres short of the runway at the small Tenzing-Hillary Airport, named after Everest pioneers Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.

"When the aeroplane was on its final approach, suddenly fog and heavy mist came up from the valley below. The plane descended and disappeared inside the thick mist and very shortly afterwards we heard a big bang," said Suraj Kunwar, a journalist for Nepal media group Kantipur who witnessed the crash.

The Australian victims were named by their embassy as Charlene Kate Zamudio, 24, and Andrew Frick McCleod, 31. The identities of the German victims were not immediately disclosed by German authorities.

"The main focus now is getting the formal identification processed, which could take up to six days," Australian Ambassador Graeme Lade told AFP.

Two of the dead Nepalese were part of the flight crew. Many of the victims' bodies were badly burned in the crash. Their remains were transported to a hospital morgue in the capital on an army helicopter Thursday.

A German foreign ministry official said the country was sending a team to help identify the 12 tourists from that country.

"Within a day, we expect a support team from German federal police to join their Nepalese colleagues to pursue conclusive identification," said a spokesman for the German Federal Foreign Office by telephone from Berlin.

The pilot, who was the lone survivor, was recovering from his injuries and would be interviewed as part of a probe by Nepal's government, Adhikari said.

Tourism is a major foreign currency earner for impoverished Nepal and since the end of a civil war in 2006 between the country's Maoists and the government, the number of visitors has increased.

This year around 500,000 tourists are expected, the highest since 1999, with many coming to trek in the Himalayan mountains.

No comments: