A Turkish airliner skidded off a runway, crashed into a ditch and broke apart while landing in bad weather in Istanbul Wednesday, killing three people and injuring 179 more.
Passengers had to scramble through the split fuselage to escape.
The aircraft, operated by Pegasus Airlines, was arriving at Istanbul’s Sabiha Gokcen airport from the western Turkish city of Izmir with 183 passengers and crew on board when it had what the Transportation Ministry described as a “rough landing.”
Istanbul Gov. Ali Yerlikaya said the plane failed to “hold onto the runway” and skidded some 50-60 metres before it dropped into the ditch from a height of about 30 metres.
“We are deeply saddened … (But) we are very happy that we escaped a greater accident,” Yerlikaya said, adding that the plane could have burst into flames.
Health Minister Fahrettin Koca reported early Thursday that three people had died and 179 required care at multiple hospitals.
Rescuers, assisted by an excavator, were seen working on one spot on the wreckage and it was not clear if they were searching for one person who remains unaccounted for.
The airport was shut down after the incident, which occurred at around 1530 GMT, and flights were diverted to Istanbul’s main airport.
Survivor Dogus Bilgic, 24, told Turkish media that he fled the smashed plane by way of a gap near his seat and was one of the first passengers to get out.
“We travelled (on the runway) for some 20 or 30 seconds, then all of a sudden we flew off the runway,” he said while seated in a wheelchair because of a leg injury. “It happened in seconds.”
“I was seated in 25C. I believe the plane broke apart at row 26,” Bilgic recalled, adding that he threw himself out of the plane when he saw the opening.
“The front (of the plane) was in a terrible state. I saw, after I was on the ground, that it had completely broken apart,” he said.
As other passengers emerged from the wreckage, Bilgic said he helped two or three to the ground.
“I carried them somewhere because they weren’t doing as well as us,” he said, then ran away from the plane with others, fearing a possible explosion.
“There was complete chaos,” he said.
Eyewitness Hasan Eraydin, who shot the video, said he had been driving home from work when he heard a rumble.
“We were about 30 metres away … we tried to get to the scene to help, but there was some sort of a canal in between and it was impossible. We thought ‘God willing, no one has died’.”
Dozens of rescue crew members swarmed around the flood-lit fuselage, including around the cockpit, which had flipped over.
The plane was a Boeing 737 that was 11-years-old, according to the flight tracking website Flightradar24.
“We are aware of the media reports and we are gathering more information,” Peter Pedraza, a Boeing spokesman, said.
Turkish media reported the injured included the plane’s two pilots, who it said were in serious condition.
“According to the information we have, there was a rough landing. The accident occurred after (the plane) could not decelerate and rammed into a field from the end of the runway,” Anadolu Agency quoted Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Mehmet Cahit Turan as saying.
Prosecutors opened an investigation of the accident, Anadolu Agency reported.
Pegasus is a privately-owned, low-cost carrier based in Istanbul that flies 97 routes, mostly within Turkey and to destinations in Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia.
It is majority-owned by Turkish billionaire Sevket Sabanci and his family, who have big investments in the country in areas as varied as real estate, clothing, health clubs and packaging materials.
The accident comes a month after a Pegasus plane with 164 people on board skidded off the runway at the same airport in Istanbul. There were no deaths or injuries in that incident on January 7.
In January 2018, another Boeing 737 in the Pegasus fleet slid off a runway at northeastern Turkey’s Trabzon Airport and down a dirt embankment. The plane came to rest in the dirt above the Black Sea with its nose pointed toward the water.
None of the 168 passengers and crew members were injured.
Planes are designed to absorb impact forces in the bottom of the fuselage to improve the chances that passengers in the cabin above will survive.
In 2013, the tail of an Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 broke off after the jet hit a seawall during approach to San Francisco International Airport. Three people died, 49 were seriously injured and scores more suffered minor injuries, according to the US accident report.
That same year, a Lion Air Boeing 737 split in two after landing in shallow water short of the runway in Bali, Indonesia.
All 101 passengers and seven crew members survived.