It was the third consecutive day of rains in Kerala and we were getting ready to turn in for another night of incessant downpour when the grim news started flashing on TV stations: Air India Express Flight IX-1344 from Dubai to Kozhikode had a failed landing at the Calicut International airport and casualties were feared. My niece was on that flight.
Over the next few minutes the pictures started coming in over television and mobile phones. The Boeing 737 -800 on a Vande Bharat mission had overshot the wet tabletop runway on its second attempt to land in heavy rain and stiff tailwind, and had tipped over and fallen 35 feet down a slope. The plane snapped into two, and the nose was crushed.
For many on that ill-fated aircraft there were three slices of fortune. One, on losing its landing traction the experienced pilots swung the aircraft leeway and switched off the engines; two, there was no ensuing fire; and three, the airport was in the vicinity of a bunch of villages who have a history of selfless community work.
The Calicut International Airport is nestled among low green hillocks in Karippur village on the Malappuram-Kozhikode border, more than 30 kms from the district headquarters. Within minutes of the accident, even before relief teams could reach, the villagers rushed in. They jumped the gates and walls, rushed into the broken aircraft – which was still in danger of catching fire and exploding – and started pulling out those trapped inside.
Injured being rescued from the Air India Express flight which crashed at the Calicut International Airport on Aug 7 night.
With airport authorities and support staff leading the way, the injured were rushed to far away towns of Manjeri, Malappuran and Kozhikode. Local young men with cars and vans swung in to supplement the modest institutional resources, triaging decisions were taken on the spot, and the seriously injured were sent straight away in the direction of bigger hospitals. Afterward, even with precautions against the pandemic in place, people lined outside facilities for donating blood.
There has always been a strong argument for formally involving local communities in disaster management plans. In the same way SOPs and processes mature over practice and time, local communities and panchayats bring some core capacities and capabilities during a time of need. Their knowledge of the local ecosystem of healthcare and support facilities is significantly more relevant, and their ability to quickly mobilise and upscale evacuation and transportation of casualties is critical during the ‘golden hour’ after a tragedy. Local assistance is key to search and rescue, reducing the time to secondary and tertiary medical attention.
Injured passengers from the Air India Express flight which crashed on Friday being rushed to hospital
People in Kerala, especially in the southern Malabar region, are used to acts of courage and selfless service by local communities at the time of disasters. During the Kadalundi train disaster in 2001 – as also during the Perumon tragedy further south in 1988 – locals jumped into swollen waters to rescue passengers from rail bogies that had fallen off bridges. More recently during the big floods of 2018, fishermen from the coasts, acting on their own, turned their boats eastward and rowed up flooded waters to pluck people to safety from rooftops and other precarious perches. When it comes to leadership at the community or panchayat level in meeting life’s challenges, Kerala is in a league of its own.
Eighteen people, including the two pilots, succumbed to their injuries in the accident. At the time of writing this, the remaining among the 190 passengers and crew, my niece among them, are recovering in various hospitals in the region. Many of them owe their lives to the unknown villagers who pulled them out from a mangled aircraft, and took urgent life-saving decisions seasoned rescue workers would have been proud of.
(Col KPM Das is a veteran from the Corps of Signals and has served in disaster and humanitarian missions with the UN.)