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Eight survive plane crash in south India, 158 dead

By Anil D'Silva

MANGALORE, India (Reuters) - An Air India Express airliner crashed and burst into flames outside an airport in southern India on Saturday, killing 158 people, many thought to be Indian migrant workers returning home from Dubai.

The Boeing 737-800 appeared to skid off the table-top runway in rain at Mangalore airport in Karnataka state and plunged into forest below, Air India director Anup Srivastava said.

Eight people survived from among 166 passengers and crew on board, he said.

All 158 bodies had been recovered, Ajay Kumar Singh, a senior Karnataka police official, told reporters.

"We had no hope to survive, but we survived," Pradeep, an Indian technician working in Dubai, told local television.

"The plane broke into two and we jumped off the plane. As soon as the plane landed, within seconds this happened."

Local television showed a fireman carrying what seemed to be the remains of a child from the smoking wreckage. Charred bodies lay in the forested terrain.

All the passengers were Indian nationals, an Air India official said. Many were likely to be Indian migrant workers in Dubai, the rich Gulf emirate which employees thousands of men and women for poorer Asian countries, often to fill lowly jobs.

The pilot was a British national of Serbian origin, Indian TV channels reported, and was said to be very experienced.

Air India Express is the budget arm of the loss-ridden state-run carrier Air India, which has been fending off growing competition from private airlines.

The flight's black box has been recovered, the United Arab Emirates state news agency WAM said. Air India official Nambiar said the search for the flight data recorder was still going on.

The crash appeared to be an accident, Indian officials said. One TV report said the plane hit a radar pole on landing.

"There was no distress indication from the pilot. That means between the pilot and the airport communication there was no indication of any problem," V.P. Agarwal, director of Airports Authority of India, told local television.

Indian officials said the plane crashed around 6 a.m. (8:30 p.m. EDT Friday). TV images showed it struck a forested area, and flames blazed from the wreckage as rescue workers fought to bring the fire under control.

"While landing at the airport, the plane deviated and hit something," said Krishna, another survivor. "It caught fire and we fell out. We looked up and saw some opening and came out through that route."

NEAR MISSES

Asked if human error was behind the crash, India's Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel said there were no indications of any trouble during the plane's landing.

"All other parameters like the aircraft functions and the runway looked to be very normal, so it should have been a normal landing," he said. "But I do not want to speculate on the cause."

India has seen a boom in private carriers due to growing demand from India's middle class. It was the first big crash in more than a decade but a series of near misses at airports, including Delhi and Mumbai, have caused concern India's creaking infrastructure was failing to keep pace with an economic boom.

Indian Law Minister Veerappa Moily told CNN-IBN TV that he had opened a new runway at Mangalore airport just 10 days ago.

The ill-fated Air India airliner was two years old. Boeing said in a statement it was sending a team to provide technical assistance to the crash investigation.

The last major crash in India was in July 2000 when an Alliance Air Boeing 737-200 crashed into a residential area during a second landing attempt in the eastern city of Patna, killing at least 50 people.

With growing competition from private carriers, the Indian government agreed to inject $1.1 billion into Air India if the ailing state-run carrier came up with the same amount in cost cuts and extra revenue.

The airline lost $875 million in the fiscal year ended March 2009.

(Additional reporting by the New Delhi bureau, Surojit Gupta and Aniruddha Basu in Mumbai, Habib Beary in Bangalore, Tim Hepher in Paris and Erika Solomon and Cynthia Johnston in Dubai; Writing by Alistair Scrutton; Editing by Krittivas Mukherjee and Dominic Evans)

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