‘We pray for a miracle’: Black boxes, 69th body found after Nepal plane crash; what we know – USA TODAY

Rescue teams sifting through the debris from a plane crash in a Nepal gorge on Monday uncovered the data and cockpit voice recorders and the remains of a 69th victim, authorities said.

The cause of Sunday’s crash near the tourist town of Pokhara remains under investigation. The flight included 68 passengers and a crew of four. The search for the three missing people continued Monday.

“We pray for a miracle,” local official Tek Bahadur KC told Agence France-Presse. “But the hope of finding anyone alive is nil.”

At least 41 of the victims had been identified, but authorities said many bodies in the country’s deadliest aviation disaster since 1992 were burned beyond recognition. A team of forensic experts has reached Pokhara from Kathmandu to complete the identifications, the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal said.

The agency said authorities have begun returning remains to the families, who are pressing for the process to be accelerated so they can hold funerals for their loved ones.

Details on crash emerge:

►Authorities temporarily closed Pokhara International Airport, which was newly built and had been operating for only two weeks before the crash occurred less than a minute’s flight from the airport.

►Local officials had expressed concern that the number of birds in the area – because of the habitat provided by two rivers as well as a nearby landfill – could create a hazard for the new airport.

VICTIMS BURNED BEYOND RECOGNITION:Search for the missing in Nepal crash underway

How did the crash unfold?

Yeti Airlines Flight NYT691 crashed near the resort town of Pokhara at about 10:50 a.m. local time as it approached the airport, the Nepal Civil Aviation Authority said. The plane was completing a 27-minute flight from Kathmandu. Prem Nath Thakur, general manager of the Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu, said the plane had been granted landing clearance. The weather was clear, there was very little wind, and the pilots reported no technical issues, he said.

Video taken by passenger Sonu Jaiswal, which was verified by The Associated Press, shows buildings, roads and greenery as the plane approaches the airport, followed by a violent jolt and a series of jerky images accompanied by yelling before flames fill the screen.

‘Like a bomb went off,’ then fire

Brig. Gen. Krishna Prasad Bhandari, an army spokesperson, told China’s state-run Xinhua news agency that many bodies were burned beyond recognition and that 80% of the plane had been gutted by fire. 

Bikash Jaiswal said he could only identify his wife’s brother – Sanjay Jaiswal – by the ring he wore, and that he had yet to tell his wife, who just gave birth to their daughter. Sanjay was flying to Pokhara for the birth.

“He was a hardworking person, and now there’s no one left in his family to earn,” Bikash said.

Local resident Arun Tamu, 44, was about 500 yards away and live-streamed some of the blazing wreckage on social media.

“I was walking when I heard a loud blast, like a bomb went off,” the former soldier told AFP. “A few of us rushed to see if we can rescue anybody. I saw at least two women were breathing. The fire was getting very intense and it made it difficult for us to approach.”

Rescuers extricate the body of a victim who died in a Yeti Airlines plane crash in Pokhara on Jan. 16, 2023.

What caused the plane crash in Nepal?

Dramatic video shot on a smartphone from the ground shows the last moments before the plane crashed. The aircraft’s nose is noticeably high before the left wing suddenly drops and the plane falls out of sight of the video, indicating a likely stall, said Amit Singh, an experienced pilot and founder of India’s Safety Matters Foundation.

Professor Ron Bartsch, an aviation safety expert and founder of Australia’s Avlaw Aviation Consulting, told Sydney’s Channel 9 that an optical illusion may have caused the pilot to believe they were traveling through the air faster than they were, resulting in the plane stalling.

“Aircraft require air to fly in and the air is more rarefied at about (2,700 feet) elevation,” Bartsch said. “It may appear that you’re going a lot faster over the ground than what you’re going through the air.”

What type of plane crashed in Nepal?

The  ATR 72-500 plane was built by the French-Italian aerospace company ATR.

“Our first thoughts are with all the individuals affected by this,” the company said in a statement. “The ATR specialists are fully engaged to support both the investigation and the customer.”

The plane-tracking website flightradar24.com said the aircraft was 15 years old and “equipped with an old transponder with unreliable data.”

In July 2014, a TransAsia ATR 72-500 flight crashed while trying to land on the scenic Penghu archipelago between Taiwan and China, killing 48 people onboard. An ATR 72-600 operated by the same Taiwanese airline crashed shortly after takeoff in Taipei in February 2015 after one of its engines failed and the second was shut down, apparently by mistake.

Who was on the plane?

The passenger list: 53 Nepalese, five Indian, four Russians, two Koreans and one person each from Argentina, Australia, Ireland and France. The Russian Ambassador to Nepal, Alexei Novikov, confirmed the death of the four Russians. Nepal authorities have released the names.

Why are there high chances of an accident in Nepal?

Sunday’s crash was Nepal’s deadliest in 30 years, when all 167 people aboard a Pakistan International Airlines plane were killed when the jet slammed into a hill on approach to the Kathmandu airport. Nepal has a history of air crashes. According to the Safety Matters Foundation’s data, there have been 42 fatal plane crashes in Nepal since 1946.

The aviation authority blamed “hostile topography” and “diverse weather patterns” in a 2019 safety report, noting that Nepal claims eight of the world’s 14 tallest mountains. Mount Everest is among them. The report said many accidents happened at airports that had short runways – and most were from pilot error.

Nepal has been accused of weak safety standards

The European Union has banned airlines from Nepal from flying into the 27-nation bloc since 2013, citing weak safety standards. In 2017, the International Civil Aviation Organization cited improvements in Nepal’s aviation sector, but the EU continues to demand administrative reforms.

Yeti flight co-pilot joined profession after husband died in plane crash

For a Nepalese family, Sunday’s crash evoked a tragic sense of deja vu.

Anju Khatiwada was the co-pilot of Yeti Airlines Flight NYT691 and among the 72 people known or believed to have died in the catastrophe, which occurred 17 years after her pilot husband perished in a 2006 plane crash, the New York Times reported.

According to the newspaper, her husband’s loss prompted Khatiwada to step away from her career as a nurse and pursue pilot training in the U.S. After returning to Nepal in 2010, she joined the same airline her husband had flown for and became a captain.

“Anju’s father had asked her not to choose the pilot profession,” Gopal Regmi, a relative, told the Times. “After her husband’s tragic death, she was determined to become a pilot.”

Contributing: The Associated Press

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