Ancient plane with licence to kill
Everything but age on govt lips
Man who stepped out of fireball
Challenger swami under arrest
Calcutta weather

Patna, July 17 
An Alliance Air flight from Calcutta crashed into a government housing estate and burst into flames this morning, killing 51 people on board and four on ground. Seven passengers survived but all six crew members are believed dead.

The 20-year-old Boeing 737, which had been cleared for landing, developed complications when it was 1,500 feet above sea level and suddenly started descending around 7.35 am, five minutes before it was due to reach Patna airport.

As the wobbling plane came dipping down, it split into four, grazed a bunch of neem trees and hurtled into a cluster of single-storeyed government houses at Gardanibagh, flattening three of them.

The plane, on a run from Calcutta to New Delhi with stops at Patna and Lucknow, crashed two kilometres short of the airport. Of the 53 passengers on board, six were booked for Lucknow. None survived.

The area is less than a kilometre away from Anne Marg, home to the chief minister, Governor and other VIPs. To the south of the crash site is a busy railway line connecting Calcutta with Delhi. The aircraft missed an express train which had passed by minutes before the crash.

Forty bodies, most of them burnt beyond recognition, were pulled out from the pile of metal wreckage. Among the dead are six women, including the four airhostesses, and three children. The pilot, Capt. Sohan Pal, was among the dead but it took time to identify his body as it was completely charred.

The body of Sepoy Neeraj Kumar, who was killed by insurgents in Arunachal Pradesh, was also on board. His colleague Sepoy Lallan Singh, accompanying the coffin, perished in the mishap.

Three houses belonging to Vaidyanath Datta, A.K. Mishra and N. Tiwari � all government employees � were razed to the ground. Four of their relatives died as the flaming plane struck the houses and smashed them in.

Civil aviation minister Sharad Yadav said the cockpit data recorder registered the conversation between the pilot and the co-pilot. Capt. Sohan Pal sounded confident and said he would land after doing the rounds, Yadav said.

Officials said the pilot spoke to air traffic control and sought permission to circle the area before landing. Something went wrong after that, they said, adding that the crash may have been a result of �a human error�.

Aviation secretary A.H. Jung said the plane was �in perfect condition� and had received all its normal checks. A Boeing spokesman said in Seattle that the plane was delivered in June 1980 and had recorded 42,000 flight hours.

Eyewitnesses said the plane�s cockpit engine first hit the ground. A part of the engine pierced through the houses. �We saw the Boeing overshoot the instrumental landing route. It tried to get back on track but in the process, the pilot may have lost control,� said a fireman at work at the site. The flames leapt at least 10 feet into the air. The plane�s tailfins rested against one of the smashed houses.

Bihar chief secretary V.S. Dubey, who was out on a morning walk, noticed the plane losing height rapidly. He immediately alerted the administration.

Fire and smoke still billowed from the scattered wreckage as rescuers, including men from the army�s Bihar Regiment, searched the rubble of the three buildings for survivors and bodies.

Rummaging through the debris, the rescue workers recovered locks of hair, a purse with Indian and American currency notes and children�s text books.

Yadav has announced a judicial inquiry by a sitting high court judge and compensation of Rs 7.5 lakh for relatives of the dead and Rs 2 lakh to the survivors.

Enquiry numbers

Patna: (0612) 238939, 223199 Calcutta: 5119933, 5119633, 5119394, 5118564. Fax: 5119394. New Delhi: (011) 3715744, 3719861. Fax: 3719484.    

July 17 
The government today sought to blame human error for the Patna crash in an effort to deflect focus from the most glaring question: the age of the aircraft.

Civil aviation authorities indicated that the pilot of the Boeing 737-200 was responsible for the accident with even department minister Sharad Yadav saying �maybe the orbit was too tight� for a safe landing.

Other top officials, who have for years sat on files relating to purchase of replacements for the ageing aircraft, too, rushed to defend the 20-year-old plane over the pilot.

In Delhi, civil aviation secretary A.H. Jung pointed out that some 522 equally ancient Boeing 737s were still flying around the world, including 40 with United Airlines, which has the world�s largest fleet of nearly 1,000 planes.

However, Boeing 737s are usually used as cargo planes.

Alliance Air officials in Patna said the plane was involved in an accident in January 1986 when one of its wings broke and it had to forceland at Tiruchirapalli airport. There were, however, no casualties.

Chairman of Airports Authority of India D.V. Gupta said the cockpit voice recorder has been found and the black box which registers all stages of the engine�s functioning was intact.

�All stages leading to the mishap have been recorded in the two instruments and there will be no difficulty in ascertaining the truth,� he said.

Airline officials in Delhi say it could well have been a freak air-pocket which caused the plane to suddenly lose height and head for the sprawling government colony.

The argument, however, is difficult to buy as the planes are equipped with modern computerised aircraft landing systems. The on-board computer tells the pilot whether he is landing too fast or losing height too much and gets him to take evasive action. It also warns him of engine fires and helps him deal with turbulences like air-pockets.

Even a rookie pilot will find it difficult to commit any serious blunder in landing a plane. And 35-year-old Captain Sohan Pal was no rookie. He had some 4,340 hours of flying experience, with 2,257 hours as commander of a plane. His co-pilot, 32-year old A.S Bagga, too, had logged some 4,065 hours of flying.

According to eyewitnesses, the pilot had wanted to overshoot and was looking for a safe zone where to forceland the rapidly descending plane. But the jerks and intractable problems stood in the way and he lost control.

The eyewitnesses said the pilot knew what he was doing as they saw a hand from the cockpit waving at the crowd below. �He was obviously trying to ask the crowd to disperse,� said Sunil Arora, chairman of Indian Airlines.    

Patna, July 17 
He had a ringside view of the disaster, sitting by a window of the ill-fated flight CD 7412, and watched as the aircraft slammed through a row of houses in Patna�s Chitkora colony.

Yet he managed to emerge from it unscathed.

�Yes, miracles do happen,� exulted Bharat Rungta, lying on his bed at the Patna Medical College and Hospital. He is one of the seven survivors of the Alliance crash and the only one to have got away with a few minor bruises.

A businessman from Maharashtra, Rungta had come on work to Calcutta and then decided to visit relatives in Patna.

�I was reading a book and generally preparing for the landing when I found the aircraft dipping,� Rungta recalled. �I looked out of the window and found the aircraft losing height at an unusual pace. First I thought it was the usual landing process but then the aircraft started jerking violently.�

Rungta held on tightly to the handles of his seat and began �to prepare for the worst�.

�I thought this was the end for me and began to pray hard even as the faces of my family members flashed through my mind,� said Rungta. �Then, as the aircraft dipped to one side and it became clear that it was going to crash into the houses below, I just shut my eyes and prepared to die.�

He did not. As the Boeing 737 smashed into the houses and parts of it went up in flames, witnesses were amazed to see Rungta emerge from one of the broken windows of the plane and quietly clamber down its side.

�I have not seen such a fantastic sight in my life,� said rescue worker Brajesh Singh. �There was shouting and screaming all around, people were crying and suddenly from this ball of fire I saw a man emerge as though nothing had happened to him.�

In fact, Rungta joined in the rescue operations, trying to help his fellow passengers out of the burning aircraft.

�What saved my life was the fact that the aircraft banked on one side while it crashed and I was sitting on the side that did not hit the ground,� Rungta said. �All that I felt was a crush of bodies as other passengers fell on me.�

Forty-two-year-old Promod Rajgharia, another survivor, has severe burn injuries on his hands and legs but, nevertheless, considers himself to be as lucky as Rungta. �The most important thing,� said Rajgharia, who was travelling with his wife and son, �is that we are all still alive.�

While his son Ketan has regained consciousness at the PMCH, his wife Prachi is yet to respond to treatment in an adjoining ward. �But we hope she will be well soon,� said attending doctor A.A. Hai.

Rohit Ranjan, an executive of a liquor company in Calcutta, too watched the aircraft hit some trees, but he had passed out before it crashed. �I started vomiting as the aircraft started jerking and this is probably why I passed out,� Ranjan said. �I don�t know how I was brought out of the burning aircraft or even how I managed to survive. I am really surprised at my fate.�

While another survivor P.M. Bopanna is yet to regain consciousness, Rajiv Singh Rana, the only survivor from Patna, was given up as �gone� by his family members. Till they traced him to a bed at the PMCH, recovering from chest injuries.    

July 17 
The battle over the seat of the Sankaracharya of Puri, one of the four Hindu religious heads, ended this evening in the arrest of Swami Adhokshyananda, who came to the temple town to claim the mantle but ended up behind bars.

The godman, who �sneaked� into Puri on Saturday evening to throw a challenge to Swami Nischalananda Saraswati � the present Sankaracharya recognised by the Orissa government � was taken into custody after he tore up a government order limiting his movement to Puri district under section 144 of CrPC.

The police produced him before the sub-divisional judicial magistrate of Puri, with pleas that he be held in judicial custody, or, if granted bail, not be allowed into the temple town.

�We did not want to get into the controversy over who was the real Sankaracharya. We had no choice but to arrest him after he tore the government order to pieces in the presence of police officials. It was a serious offence and we had to take action,� Puri district collector Pradip Kumar Mohapatra said.

Swami Adhokshyananda, who claimed to have been anointed Sankaracharya by the former Puri seer Swami Niranjan Dev Tirtha in 1995 at Kumbmela, was booked under five sections of the Indian Penal Code for intimidating and preventing officials from discharging their duties.

Mohapatra said the government recognised Swami Nischalananda Saraswati of Puri�s Gobardhan Peeth as Sankaracharya following a 1995 court order. �He was recognised by the Endowment Commissioner in 1995 as executive officer of the Gobardhan Peeth after a legal battle. The executive officer of the math is known as Sankaracharya.�

The arrested godman sparked a controversy barely a month ago when he criticised militant Hindu groups, especially the RSS, on a trip to Srinagar. He blasted the groups for targeting minorities, especially Christians, which he said was against Hindu ethos.

Swami Nischalananda Saraswati denied making the remarks after the media attributed the comments to him. �I have never visited Srinagar. Nor have I made any such remarks,� he told the The Telegraph today.

The Sankaracharya said he did not want to file any police complaint against the claimant of his position yet. �The entire nation knows who is the Sankaracharya. I need not say anything. Identity of this man will soon be revealed,� Swami Nischalananda Saraswati said over phone.

The district collector accused the arrested godman of whipping up tension by making inflammatory remarks in public against the Sankaracharya. He said Puri was tense over the last two days, with Sankaracharya followers protesting against the claimant.

�We clamped prohibitory orders fearing violence, but the swamiji tore up the order,� Mohapatra said.

The official said the godman was �thrown out� on similar charges when he visited Puri in March and �tried to create disturbances�.

�But he sneaked back into Puri through the backdoor on Saturday evening and tried to breach the peace. How can the administration tolerate this?� the collector asked.

Armed with a video camera to ward off any charges of assault in the future, police officials, accompanied by two magistrates, went to pick up the godman from a house in Dhanmandir after he tore up the prohibitory orders. But the house was locked and policemen were showered with �choice invectives�, the collector said.

The police broke down the door, but still the man holed up in a room refused to turn himself over. Finally, a local lawyer for the godman was called in. The advocate persuaded the swami to come out and walk into the waiting police jeep.    

Temperature: Maximum: 34.5C (+3) Minimum: 26.5�C (+1) RAINFALL: 2.6 mm Relative humidity: Maximum: 98%, Minimum: 70% Today: One or two showers or thundershowers. Sunset: 6.21 pm Sunrise: 5.04 am    

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