What happened once the airport let locals participate in the rescue mission, is a source of pride for Kerala.

Kozhikode aircrash, locals involving in rescue operations at Karipur Airport
news Kozhikode Air Crash Sunday, August 09, 2020 - 18:54

On Friday evening, Kondotty resident Shuhaib heard a noise he had never heard before. It was raining heavily and the power supply was cut at his wife’s house, located 200 metres away from the Kozhikode International Airport. 

“We heard a screeching noise, like steel wires being dragged across the road. This was followed by a boom and then a tremor which we all felt,” Shuhaib tells TNM. Initially, residents of the locality assumed that a landslide had occurred near the airport, which has its runway on a tabletop. A few of them, Shuhaib included, rushed to the site, only to witness a crashed Boeing-737 Air India Express flight which lay broken in pieces. 

In the minutes right after the crash of the Air India Express flight on Friday, confusion prevailed as the locals were locked out of the airport premises and did not know if people were hurt in the accident. “Some people said it was a cargo flight. One person later confirmed that it was a flight bringing stranded Keralites from Dubai as part of the repatriation mission. In all this time, the airport authorities refused to open the gates for us,” Shuhaib recalls. 

However, what happened once the airport let locals participate in the rescue mission 20 minutes later, is a source of pride for Kerala. It stands testimony to the collective strength and humanity displayed by residents from across Kozhikode and Malappuram, who braved a pandemic to save several lives from the accident. 

Residents turn first responders 

Within the first hour of the rescue operations, jointly led by civilians, fire and rescue services, police and airport authorities, hundreds of local residents turned up at the airport. Several of the neighbourhood people were first responders, who managed to rescue and hospitalise 50 passengers out of 189, even before official rescue teams reached the site. 

There were not enough ambulances in the beginning. We were wondering how to take rescued passengers to a hospital. So we used Facebook to spread the message to people to bring bigger cars to the airport. Within 10 minutes, at least 80 cars turned up to take the wounded passengers,” Mohammad Asif, 24, a rescuer who had taken out the bodies of the two pilots from the cockpit, told TNM. With no vehicles available in the beginning, volunteers blocked a pick-up truck on the road and ensured that some of the passengers were taken to the hospital. Survivors were taken out in auto rickshaws, two-wheelers and smaller cars initially before the ambulances arrived. 

Those with minor injuries were admitted to the Mercy Hospital and the Relief Hospitals in Kondotty. The more serious cases were directly taken to the Kozhikode Medical College Hospital, MIMS, Baby Memorial Hospital, Beach Hospital and the Manjeri Medical College Hospital where ICU facilities are available. 

Malappuram native Ramees was at the Relief Hospital in Kondotty when victims of the crash were being brought in on stretchers. Ramees recounts the hospital ward drowning in chaos. Chairs were pushed aside and survivors were laid down on the floor until the staff arranged beds. Even the existing patients in the hospital got up from their beds and made space for the crash survivors, he adds. 

“We could see people removing their drips and getting up from the beds, as the crash survivors were more injured and needed immediate attention. Such was the concern that was shown,” Ramees tells. 

Outside of the hospital, which is situated by the Palakkad- Kozhikode NH 966, hundreds of residents from both Kondotty and the Pallikal panchayat had taken over traffic control and vehicle logistics arrangements.

“Critical patients from the two hospitals had to be shifted to bigger hospitals in Kozhikode. For this, volunteers blocked cars on the highway to make way for private vehicles taking these survivors to Kozhikode,” Ramees says. Inside the hospital, data of patients and unidentified children were collected, their photographs taken, and shared in several groups. Volunteers rang up and informed the kin of those survivors who could remember phone numbers of their family. 

Among the survivors too, humanity was the predominant sentiment that prevailed. The hospital had several children, one of them a two-year-old girl, whose parents were not with her. “She was rescued by another survivor who was also in the crash. The baby was calm in his arms while a woman who had also survived the accident fed her an orange while waiting for a bed,” Ramees says. 

Living a nightmare 

Mohammad Shaffi, 34, recounts the scene at the crash site as he reached with his airport taxi inside the terminal. “As I rushed to the wreckage at 9 pm, I saw two men, with almost no injuries, walk past me. They looked shell shocked and told me that they had just survived the crash. I put them in a car which took them to a hospital. But many did not survive,” Shaffi tells TNM. The official death of the crash stands at 18. It includes the pilot, Captain Deepak Sathe, who died on the spot, co-pilot Captain Akhilesh Kumar and 16 passengers. 

The night’s dramatic rescue operation left emotional scars on the rescuers too. Several of the volunteers recounted horrific instances of losing passengers even as they were being rushed to the hospital for treatment. 

“My friend was handed over a 1.5 year old by a CISF (Central Industrial Security Force) volunteer from the wreckage. The baby had a head injury and had to be taken to Kozhikode for treatment. My friend rushed to Kozhikode and he kept calling me, saying the child was breathing heavily. When they were five minutes away from the Kozhikode Medical College hospital at the Ramanattukara bypass, the baby stopped breathing in his arms,” Shuhaib adds. 

Another volunteer recounted the terrifying experience of losing a 25-year-old pregnant woman, even as they reached the gates of the Relief Hospital in Kondotty. 

“She was taken in a car and her head was bleeding. As we reached the front gates of the Relief Hospital, I helped her out of the vehicle. She collapsed near the entrance and never woke up again,” the volunteer, who wished to remain anonymous, told TNM.

Despite witnessing death first hand, rescuers willed themselves to continue with the mission, temporarily shaking off the trauma to save the lives of those who still breathed after the accident. 

One of the toughest parts of the rescue operation of the Air India Flight IX 3144 crash was pulling out a few passengers who were stuck between the tail and fuselage of the aircraft. The flight which had overshot the runway and plunged 30 feet, had broken into three pieces, with a portion of the fuselage before the tail cracking open. 

“The seats there were entirely mangled and there were 5-6 people who were trapped underneath. We had to use metal cutters to tear apart the seats and pull these people out. It was tricky. One woman, who was squeezed between two seats, did not survive the mishap. Hers was the last body to be recovered," Shaffi says. 

Volunteers rush to blood bank 

Heartwarming visuals of volunteers rushing to the blood bank to donate to those injured in the crash were shared on social media on Friday. A long queue stood outside the blood bank of the Kozhikode Medical College Hospital. Shuhaib recounts that the first place that needed blood was the Baby Memorial Hospital in Kozhikode. 

“They needed blood from the O+ group for a patient who was injured in the crash,” he adds. 

Once the message was spread on social media, hundreds from Kozhikode and Pallikal and Kondotty in Malappuram reached the blood bank to donate. With several people donating blood in various hospitals, Shuhaib says that he asked a young volunteer to go home as the banks had enough blood. 

“He said he was coming 25 kms away from Kozhikode to give his blood, and added that he will wait till the morning and donate in case there was an emergency,” Shuhaib adds. 

Humanity over pandemic 

Despite Kondotty Municipality area being a containment zone with police protection and borders cordoned off, residents temporarily set aside quarantine rules and rushed to offer help. At the blood banks, many of the residents from the containment zone refrained from donating for fear of spreading the virus. 

“Locals from Pallikal and Kondotty had gone to donate blood. While the Pallikal residents gave theirs, many of the containment zone folks from Kondotty decided to sensibly refrain, for fear of further spreading the disease,” Shuhaib added. 

On Saturday, volunteers who had broken physical distancing rules to help, went back to a 14-day quarantine post rescue operations. Their heartening contribution was lauded by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan who said that without their help, swift relief operations would have been near possible. 

“Yes, there is a pandemic and heavy rains. There was significant risk in entering the wreckage, especially with the fuel leak, for fear of its blowing up. But it takes a whole community to be able to help with such large scale operations. If we hadn’t acted then, when else,” Shaffi asks. 


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