Locals brushed aside COVID-19 concerns to help passengers of crashed Air India flight, saved many lives

Local residents from Chirayil Chungam, Paalakkaparamba and Mukoottu reached the airport accident site in the heavy rain even before rescue teams to help the injured

Photo Courtesy: IANS
Photo Courtesy: IANS

Ashlin Mathew

Friday, August 7, was a day of multiple tragedies in Kerala. Due to heavy rains and landslides, at least 19 people died in Munnar. And just as the day was ending, at 7.41 pm, a ‘Vande Bharat’ Air India Express flight from Dubai with 191 passengers and crew skidded off the runway at Kozhikode airport. It rammed into the airport wall, broke down the middle and fell off the table-top runway into the forested area 35 feet below.

Eighteen passengers have been declared dead and 100 have been injured. The numbers would have been higher if the local residents hadn’t rushed to help with the rescue efforts, said officials.

Though it is called Calicut (Kozhikode) airport, it is situated in Kondotty in Mallapuram district. Since the last week of July, all wards in Kondotty were declared hotspots. They were in the containment zone with multiple COVID-19 cases in almost every Panchayat. The Kondotty fish market continued to be a cause for concern. Several inner roads in Kondotty taluk which are connected to the airport have been blocked.

Despite these concerns and before rescue teams reached the airport accident site, local residents from Chirayil Chungam, Paalakkaparamba and Mukoottu reached the airport in the heavy rain to help those injured. They ferried the severely injured passengers in taxis, ambulances and their own cars to six hospitals within 15-km radius of the airport.

A policeman who was on duty at the exit gate of airport said that initially they had only heard that the flight had landed. “Within 15 minutes we heard that there was an accident. The Circle Inspector told us to head to the runway. By the time we reached there, all the airport taxis were informed to reach the runway. By then, the fire tenders and residents had already reached with their vehicles. They were helping passengers onto ambulances and several came back to help again. Many of us did not have raincoats or umbrellas. Despite being a containment zone, the fear of the virus did not stop them from coming forward,” said the policeman, Ramdas. All those who were involved in the rescue efforts will now have to be quarantined.

The first of the injured passengers were taken to Mercy Hospital, which is the closest to the airport, then Relief Hospital, Farook Crescent Hospital, Baby Hospital, Kozhikode NIMS and Kozhikode Medical College.

Junaid, who was among the first few persons who reached the airport to help the rescue efforts, said that initially when they heard the loud bang, they all assumed it to be thunder and lightning. “As soon as we realised that was not the case, we all rushed to the airport. When we reached the airport, we saw the cockpit rammed into the airport wall. Even though we heard cries from inside, the authorities were not willing to let us in due to security concerns. Within a few minutes, an ambulance and a fire tender were seen rushing to the site. It had only five people in it. When they realised they would not be able to manage it alone, they let us in. I drove the first ambulance with five patients to Mercy Hospital,” Junaid said.

Junaid rescued the children first and drove them to Mercy Hospital. “After we reached Mercy Hospital, at least another 10 ambulances had come with severely injured patients. After they were administered first-aid, they were asked to go to other hospitals as Mercy Hospital did not have the facilities to treat severely injured passengers. Many of the ambulances had to take circuitous routes as several roads to the hospitals are blocked as we are in a containment zone,” said Junaid.

One of the passengers, 30-year-old Youjin Pullikathody, said the flight was circling the airport for more than 20 minutes as the pilot could not figure out the runway. “As soon as the flight touched the runway, it skidded. There were a lot of grievously injured passengers. I was sitting in the back of the flight. As soon as the flight crashed, the luggage fell on top of the passengers sitting in the back. Many people were stuck under the luggage. I climbed on top of the flight to call the rescue team as there was a child under a seat in front of me. The CRPF team had to come to the child’s rescue as the family was stuck under the seat,” said Youjin. He himself was only slightly injured.

His friends had come to pick him up from the airport. They took an injured child to Baby Hospital. “Two hospitals were completely full of injured passengers. In the third hospital, we were allowed. There are several injured patients here. I was administered first-aid and I have been asked to leave. As I have come from Dubai, it’s not safe for the others if I stay longer at the hospital,” explained Youjin.

Shahul Hameed, who rescued 37 passengers, said he was in Chirayil Chungam because his father’s younger brother had died and the whole family was at their ancestral home. “As soon as I heard the crash noise, I went to the airport in the heavy rain. We diverted as many vehicles as possible to the crash site to help with the rescue operations. When I saw the crashed flight, all thoughts of Corona vanished. I was able to help rescue 37 passengers, of which one was a grievously injured child. Many have leg fractures and injuries,” explained Hameed.

All those who were involved in the rescue efforts have been requested to go into self-quarantine by the Kerala health minister KK Shailaja. “The state government will conduct COVID-19 tests on all of them,” said Shailaja.

As this was a flight with many passengers from Dubai, several in the area had their relatives on the ill-fated IX 1344 Air India Express. There were 174 passengers, 10 infants, two pilots and five cabin crew. Many of those on the flight had given the reason as loss of jobs due to COVID-19 and expiry of visiting visa as the reason for returning home. A few were on the flight for marriage and others for medical care.

Helpline numbers:

0495-2376901 (Helpline number for relatives of passengers)

0483-2719493 (Control room number at Kozhikode airport)

0097165970303 (Control room number at Sharjah airport in UAE)

009710565463903 (Control room number at Dubai airport)

009710543090572 (Control room number at Dubai airport)

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