Mohammad Asif’s phone vibrated at 8 pm on Friday. It was a call from his friend asking him to rush to the Kozhikode International Airport in Karipur, as a flight had crashed and broken into pieces.
The 24-year-old reached the accident spot within 10 minutes. There, a damaged Boeing 737 aircraft, its engine smoking, lay on the runway broken in three pieces. Its cockpit had broken off from the rest of the plane and hit the airport’s boundary wall. Bent metal and wires stuck out from the flight, and the impact of the crash had thrown entire seats and passengers out of the aircraft. It was chaos everywhere.
As over 500 local residents rushed to the site and turned rescuers, Asif and two of his friends scrambled to the front portion. They spotted four adults and three minors who were stuck just behind the cockpit. The survivors were trapped under a pile of seats and had to be pulled out by the volunteers.
“There was a fuel leak and the ground crew was spraying fire extinguishers to prevent an explosion. The ambulance sirens drowned out the screams of the passengers who were running out. There were many trapped beneath the broken seats. By the time I reached the front portion, we couldn’t decide whom to pull out first,” Asif recounts to TNM.
A part of the Vande Bharat repatriation Mission, the Dubai-Kozhikode Air India flight had 189 passengers and seven crew members on board when it landed on Friday night. The accident has so far claimed 19 lives, including that of pilot Captain Deepak Sathe and First officer Akhilesh Kumar.
At the time of the rescue mission, the co-pilot Akhilesh Kumar was found inside the cockpit still alive, Asif says. It was Asif and two other rescue workers who climbed atop the boundary wall and smashed the front glass of the cockpit open with iron pipes. Between 9 and 10:30 pm, the group managed to retrieve the two officers.
“I could feel the co-pilot’s pulse. It was weak but it was there. The seats had jammed together and his legs were stuck. We had to use a metal cutter and cut the seat to pull his legs out. That took nearly 40 minutes. He was injured and we put him in a private vehicle and sent him to a hospital,” Asif recounts.
The duo then attempted to retrieve the body of Captain Deepak Sathe. One side of his forehead had been bleeding, Asif recounts.
“I got a cotton gauze and soaked up the blood and stayed put for 30 minutes while the two others cut the seat to get his body out. He was already dead when we reached him,” the 24-year-old says.
Thirty-two-year old Captain Akhilesh was taken to the MIMS Hospital in Kozhikode for treatment but didn’t make it. Captain Sathe’s mortal remains too were taken to the same hospital.
Asif says that post rescue, he could not directly follow up on the condition of the co-pilot. “Last I heard was that he did not survive the accident,” he says.
Kondotty native and DYFI member Shuhaib, who was also a volunteer, recalls that there was initially some confusion about how to rescue those in the cockpit. “It took some time as the airport authorities were not permitting rescuers to clear the boundary wall and enter the cabin. The doors too were jammed. I learnt that the two pilots were taken to Kozhikode in a private vehicle,” Shuhaib tells TNM.
According to Asif’s account, the rescue mission in the cockpit, which was among the toughest, took an hour and a half. It was raining heavily, and the boundary wall which the cockpit had hit was wobbly and could have collapsed anytime, he recalls.
Despite the challenges, by 11 pm nearly all passengers, deceased and alive, had been removed from the wreckage, Asif adds. “Five or six people were trapped right before the tail portion. They had to be pulled out after cutting the seats. One of them did not survive,” he says.
Hailing from Kondotty in Malappuram, Asif is a trained fire and rescue volunteer. He is also a member of the DYFI (the youth wing of the CPI(M)). He says he had only ever seen mock drills of rescue operations of such a large scale. “I was living a nightmare and I had to act,” he adds.
In the immediate aftermath of the air crash, hundreds of volunteers from Kondotty municipality and Pallikal panchayat, located near the airport, turned up at the site to rescue victims despite the fear of COVID-19.
They braved a pandemic for the sake of humanity, saving as many as 50 lives even before official rescue teams reached the spot. The efforts of these residents-turned-first-responders were lauded by Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan, who said that such a swift rescue would not have happened if not for the civilian help extended.