(KATHMANDU, Nepal) — A passenger plane carrying 71 people from Bangladesh crashed and burst into flames as it landed Monday in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, killing dozens of people, officials said.
The death toll remained unclear amid the chaos of the crash and the rush of badly injured victims to nearby hospitals. Brig. Gen. Gokul Bhandari, the Nepal army spokesman, said 50 people had died and the fate of the others was unknown. But a police official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, said at least 38 people had died, 23 had been injured and 10 were unaccounted for.
The plane was carrying 67 passengers and four crew members, according to an airline spokesman.
An AP journalist who arrived at the scene soon after the crash saw the US-Bangla Airlines twin-propeller plane broken into several large pieces, with dozens of firefighters and rescue workers clustered around the wreckage in a grassy field near the runway. Hundreds of people stood on a nearby hill, staring down at what remained of the Bombardier Dash 8.
The plane swerved repeatedly as it prepared to land in Kathmandu, said Amanda Summers, an American working in Nepal. The crowded city sits in a valley in the Himalayan foothills.
“It was flying so low I thought it was going to run into the mountains,” said Summers, who watched the crash from the terrace of her home office, not far from the airport. “All of a sudden there was a blast and then another blast.”
Fire crews put out the flames quickly, perhaps within a minute, she said, though for a time clouds of thick, dark smoke rose into the sky above the city.
The plane had circled the airport twice as it waited for clearance to land, Mohammed Selim, the airline’s manager in Kathmandu, told Dhaka-based Somoy TV station by telephone.
Nitin Keyal was about to board a domestic flight when he saw the plane coming in.
“It was flying very low,” said Keyal, a medical student. “Everyone just froze looking at it. You could tell it wasn’t a normal landing.”
He said it landed just off the runway, broke apart and burst into flames. “For a few minutes no one could believe what was happening. It was just terrible,” he said.
Most of the injured were brought to Kathmandu Medical College, the closest hospital to the airport, where relatives wept as they awaited news.
US-Bangla spokesman Kamrul Islam said the plane was carrying 32 passengers from Bangladesh, 33 from Nepal and one each from China and the Maldives. He said there were four crewmembers on board, but did not provide their nationalities.
US-Bangla operates Boeing 737-800 and smaller Bombardier Dash 8 Q-400 planes.
The airline, part of US-Bangla Group, is based in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, and flies to several domestic and international destinations. The parent company is involved in a number of industries, including real estate, education and agriculture.
Kathmandu’s airport has been the site of several deadly crashes. In September 2012, a Sita Air turboprop plane carrying trekkers to Mount Everest hit a bird and crashed shortly after takeoff, killing all 19 on board.