KATHMANDU, Nepal — A passenger plane from Bangladesh slammed into an empty field and erupted in flames just beyond the runway at the airport in Nepal’s capital on Monday, and officials said at least 49 of the 71 people on board had died.
“The Nepali people were saying, ‘Bachaau, bachaau,'” which means ‘Save me, save me,'” said Balkrishna Upadhyay, an army rescuer. “The Bangladeshis were screaming out in English: ‘Help me, please help me.'"
“It was horrible,” Upadhyay said.
I was in the capital, Kathmandu, maybe 3 miles away, reporting a story about migration, when the plane went down. I rushed to the airport with Bhadra Sharma, a Nepali journalist. Just outside the gates, we clambered up a pile of gravel and watched fire engines spray water onto the burning plane.
A firefighter invited us and some Nepali photojournalists to jump into the back of his pickup truck and we raced right up to the crash site. It smelled like burning plastic, very toxic.
The grass was flattened and blackened, scattered with torn papers, shredded seats, pieces of mangled foam and one metal water bottle lying on its own. A few big pieces of the plane, including the tail, were still intact and smoking, but most of it had burned up.
A long row of yellow body bags lay in the burned grass. Police officers did their best to keep the bodies covered, but a charred limb poked out of an open bag.
The plane, US-Bangla Airlines Flight 211, was landing at Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu on a flight from Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, when it crashed at 2:15 p.m. Witnesses said it was wobbling in the air and seemed unbalanced as it approached.
Several airport workers that we talked to said it had overshot the runway by about 150 feet, nose-diving into the deserted field just beyond the airport fence. A few minutes later, while the first batch of rescuers were pulling panicked passengers out of the front of the plane, an intense fire burst out at the back.
“It sounded like a bomb went off,” said Kailash Adhikari, a driver for a fuel company working at the airport. He said it took 15 minutes for firefighters to extinguish the flames. If the firefighters had arrived faster, several rescue crew members told us, more people could have been saved.
Nepali police officials said the flight was carrying 67 passengers and four crew members. Forty-nine people were confirmed dead and 22 injured, many in critical condition, said Manoj Neupane, a spokesman for the national police.
The cause of the crash was not clear, officials said, though the air Monday was especially hazy. I had flown into that airport a few hours before the crash, and the skies were choked with dust and smog.
After the crash, ambulances with screaming sirens rushed in and out of the airport gates. For more than an hour, smoke billowed from the wreckage.
By 5 p.m., as the sun was sinking into the haze, a procession of 16 ambulances, one right after the other, zoomed away from the crash site. I looked into each ambulance and could see no survivors. Instead, each vehicle carried at least one long yellow zippered bag.
Airline officials said they were investigating what caused the plane to miss the runway.
US-Bangla Airlines said the pilot was experienced, with 5,000 hours of flying, and that there had been no evidence of a mechanical failure.
An airline executive said there might have been “some confusion” between the pilot and the airport control tower. “However, this is a matter of investigation. The probe committee will look into it,” said the executive, Mohammad Kamrul Islam, general manager of marketing support for the airline.
An audio recording was posted on YouTube Monday night that Islam said “seemed to be the last conversation between the pilot and the control tower.” In the recording, the pilot requests to land but the control tower tells the pilot that there is traffic on the runway. Islam added that he could not confirm if the audio recording was authentic and that the “black box will unveil everything.”
Aviation experts said the recording indicated that the pilot was disoriented, possibly by unclear directions from the control tower. He seemed to be heading for the wrong runway when the control tower canceled his permission to land. The pilot then tried to go around to the right runway but was flying too low and plowed into the ground.
The crash shut down the airport, with all operations grinding to a halt.
This airport can get quite busy: It is the entry point for hundreds of thousands of tourists each year. Many come to trek in the Himalayas, and Monday afternoon several large jetliners were sitting on the tarmac, about to take off, while arriving planes circled pending permission to land.
Some were short on fuel as they waited. The airport reopened about 2 1/2 hours later.
The posted schedule of the crashed plane identified it as Flight 211, a Bombardier Dash 8 from Dhaka, scheduled to land at 2:15 p.m., around the actual time of the crash. The plane, a twin-engine turboprop, can carry as many as 78 passengers.
US-Bangla Airlines began operations in 2014, and its route between Dhaka and Kathmandu was its first international one, said the CAPA-Center for Aviation, a research group in Sydney. The airline is a subsidiary of the US-Bangla Group, a joint U.S.-Bangladeshi company.
On Monday evening, huge crowds poured into the Kathmandu Medical College and Teaching Hospital, about a 15-minute drive from the airport. The courtyard was packed and people were spilling into the street, on their phones, looking anxious. This was the hospital where doctors were treating the badly burned survivors — the passengers were a mix of Nepalis and Bangladeshis, including businessmen and medical students.
One well-dressed middle-aged man stood by himself in the hospital’s lobby. His eyes welled with tears.
His name was Tilak Neupane and he runs a travel agency in Kathmandu. Two of his employees were on board, he said. They died.
US-Bangla Airlines had offered them a free trip to Dhaka, in appreciation of all the tickets they had sold.
“The airline called it a friend trip,'’ Neupane said.
“I don’t know what else to say,” he whispered. “I’m in so much pain.”
He then leaned against the wall and began to sob.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.