ISLAMABAD // Relatives desperate to find the bodies of their loved ones joined emergency teams battling thick mud, rain and slippery hillsides today at the scene of Pakistan's worst-ever plane crash. Authorities speculated that monsoon weather the day before may have been a factor in the crash of the Airblue flight into hills overlooking the country's capital, Islamabad. The plane was apparently off course when it slammed into the ground, killing all 152 people on board.
Army troops and civilian rescue workers searched a large stretch of the hills scorched by the crash, but tough conditions slowed the pace of operations, said Ramzan Khalid, spokesman for the Capital Development Authority, which helps deal with emergencies. Helicopters could not fly in the heavy rain, he said. An Associated Press Television News cameraman in the hills saw relatives of passengers working with soldiers and other rescuers at one crash site, where the undercarriage of the jet had come to rest. They had collected several body parts in small bags.
Dozens of relatives and friends of those killed slept outside Islamabad's largest hospital overnight, hoping to receive bodies. They were still there this morning, hugging one another as their tears mixed with the heavy rain, but few corpses were released. The plane's "black box" flight data recorders have yet to be recovered. Information extracted from them will be vital in determining the cause of the crash. Pakistan's defence minister, Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar, and other officials have said the government does not suspect terrorism.
The plane was flying from Karachi, the country's commercial capital. Even when the search is completed, it could take days to identify all the victims with DNA testing, since most of the bodies were torn apart and burned in the crash, a grim scene described by rescue workers scouring the twisted metal wreckage. Rescue worker Murtaza Khan said: "There is nothing left, just piles and bundles of flesh. There are just some belongings, like two or three travelling bags, some chequebooks, and I saw a picture of a young boy. Otherwise everything is burned,".
The crash was the latest tragedy to jolt a country that has seen thousands of deaths in recent years from al Qa'eda and Taliban attacks. The US Embassy said at least two American citizens were on the plane, an Airbus A321, which was carrying 146 passengers and six crew members. In the US, Paulette Kirksey said that her godmother, Rosie Ahmed of Gadsden, Alabama, and her husband, Saleem Ahmed, were among those on the plane. Rosie Ahmed was in Pakistan to arrange for her husband to move to the United States, Ms Kirksey said. She said Rosie Ahmed was in her late 50s.
The Pakistani government declared today a day of mourning for those lost in the crash. As of last night, when rescue work was suspended until the morning, 115 bodies had been recovered, the federal information minister, Qamar Zaman Kaira, said. Pervez George, a civil aviation official, said the control tower at Islamabad airport lost contact with the plane as it was trying to land yesterday morning. Several officials said the plane seemed to be an unusual distance from the airport, which was some 15 kilometres away.
Raheel Ahmed, a spokesman for the airline, said the plane had no known technical issues, and the pilots did not send any emergency signals. Airbus said it would provide technical assistance to the crash investigators. * AP