Friday, September 01, 2006

30 Die in Airport Runway Inferno

Alireza Ronaghi and Michael Theodoulou, The Scotsman:
At least 30 people died when an Iranian airliner skidded off the runway and caught fire as a tyre burst while it was landing at a north-eastern airport yesterday. While initial reports put the death toll at 80, state television said 62 of the 148 people on board had emerged unhurt from the wreck at the airport in the city of Mashhad, the site of Iran's holiest shrine. Another 47 were taken to hospital and the fate of the rest was unclear. READ MORE

A civil aviation official, Reza Jafarzadeh, denied reports of an emergency landing, but gave no alternative explanation for the accident. The plane had flown from the southern port city of Bandar Abbas.

"Because some of the injured have been transferred to hospitals, we have no exact figures about the death toll," Mehdi Sadeqi, the managing director of Iranairtour, had previously told state television.

Television pictures showed a wrecked plane with parts of its fuselage charred. The cockpit appeared largely unaffected by fire, as did much of the rear portion of the aircraft.

Firefighters were shown extinguishing fires in parts of the smouldering wreck and clambering over other areas of the fuselage, carrying out corpses covered in blankets.

State media reported that the plane, a Russian-built Tupolev 154, caught fire at 1:45pm local time, after slipping off the side of the runway when a tyre burst on landing.

"The flight crew and the pilot of this flight survived, and this will be a great help to find out the cause of the accident as soon as possible," Mohammad Rahmati, the roads and transport minister, told the Iranian students' news agency ISNA.

An Iranairtour official, who asked not to be identified, said the airline was contacting families of the victims. He also said that flights to Mashhad had been cancelled.

Pilgrims flock to Mashhad throughout the year to visit the tomb of Imam Reza, the eighth Shiite imam. It was not clear if any of those on board the Iranairtour flight had been making the pilgrimage.

Bandar Abbas, where the plane began its journey, is the Islamic republic's main port. Near the city is the popular Iranian holiday destination of Qeshm island.

Experts say Iran has a poor air safety record, with a string of crashes in recent decades, many of them involving Russian-made aircraft.

US sanctions on the Islamic state have prevented it from buying new aircraft or spares from the West, forcing it to supplement its ageing fleet of Boeing and Airbus planes with aircraft from the former Soviet Union.

The country's last major plane disaster involved a military plane which crashed in January, killing at least 11 people. Another military plane hit a tower block in Tehran in December, killing 94 people on board and at least 22 on the ground.

The most recent Iranian civil aviation disaster involved a Kish airlines Fokker-50 plane, which crashed in February 2004 while landing in Sharjah airport in the United Arab Emirates, killing 43 of the 45 passengers and crew.