By Pavel Mikheyev and Olzhas Auyezov
ALMATY (Reuters) – Twelve people were killed and dozens injured when a plane with nearly 100 passengers and crew on board crashed soon after take-off in Kazakhstan on Friday.
The Bek Air Fokker 100 got into trouble shortly after departing from Almaty, the Central Asian country’s commercial center, on a pre-dawn flight to the capital Nur-Sultan.
It lost altitude during take-off and broke through a concrete fence before hitting a two-story building, Kazakhstan’s Civil Aviation Committee said. It was not immediately clear what caused the crash.
“The plane tilted to the left, then to the right, then it started shaking while still trying to gain altitude,” businessman Aslan Nazaraliyev, who survived the crash, told Reuters.
Investigators found scratch marks on the runway.
“Before crashing, the aircraft touched the runway with its tail twice, the gear was retracted,” Deputy Prime Minister Roman Sklyar told reporters.
“A commission … will establish whether this was pilot error or technical issues. The runway was in an ideal condition.”
A Reuters reporter saw the battered remains of the front of the plane and other parts of the fuselage scattered around what was left of the house.
A survivor told news website Tengrinews she heard a “terrifying sound” before the plane started losing altitude.
“The plane was flying at a tilt. Everything was like in a movie: screaming, shouting, people crying,” she said.
Authorities initially put the death toll at 15 or more but later revised the figure to 12. They said 49 people were in hospitals, some of them in a serious condition.
The plane had been carrying 93 passengers and five crew, and the interior ministry said the captain was among those killed.
The ministry said it was investigating a possible breach of flight operation and safety rules, a standard legal procedure.
Kazakhstan’s aviation committee said it was suspending all flights by carrier Bek Air and those of Fokker 100 aircraft pending the results of the investigation.
“MOANS AND SCREAMS”
Nazaraliyev said he had been seated next to an emergency exit in row 15 and all the rows in front of him were torn off when the plane broke in half on impact.
After the shaking started and before the crash “I had enough time to put away my phone and fasten my seatbelt”, he said.
“We got out through the emergency exit … I and other men started getting people out and away from the plane. Some were trapped by concrete debris from the building. There were moans and screams and it was dark.”
One of those killed, electrician Abai Nurbekov, was on the plane with his family of six, news website The Village reported. His wife and four children remained in intensive care.
In Almaty, residents flooded a local blood donation center.
Authorities cordoned off the crash site in the village of Almerek, just beyond the end of the runway.
The airport remained operational with other planes taking off after the crash.
At the airport at Nur-Sultan, relatives of the passengers – some of whom were going to join their families for the holidays – were being briefed on their fate and offered flights to Almaty.
“Those responsible will face tough punishment in accordance with the law,” Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev tweeted, expressing condolences to the victims and their families. He also ordered an audit of all Kazakh airlines.
Tokayev declared Dec. 28 a national day of mourning and appointed Prime Minister Askar Mamin to head a commission to investigate the crash. Mamin’s office said the commission will report preliminary findings by Jan. 10.
The crashed plane was built in 1996, the government said, and its most recent flight certificate was issued in May 2019.
Bek Air, a low-cost carrier, made headlines in 2016 when one its Fokkers had to land on its rear wheels after its landing gear failed to deploy fully.
The same year, the airline successfully challenged aviation authorities’ plans to make the International Air Transport Association operational safety audit mandatory for all local carriers on the grounds that such a move required changes to law rather than just government regulations.
(Additional reporting by Tamara Vaal in Nur-Sultan; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov/Andrew Osborn; Editing by Robert Birsel, John Stonestreet, Gareth Jones and Giles Elgood)