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Recovery continuing at Air India crash site

At least 158 people died when the 737 overshot the runway and then plunged down a hill.

NEW DELHI - Searchers combed a steep, wooded hillside in southern India on Saturday for the remains of 158 passengers and crew of an Air India Express flight and clues to the cause of the country's worst aviation accident in a decade.

With the black box voice recorder not yet recovered, it was unclear why Flight IX-812, carrying mostly migrant workers returning from the Persian Gulf, overshot the runway in Mangalore and plunged down the hillside early Saturday.

Officials said the weather had been good, and there were no indications of mechanical problems or a communications mix-up with air traffic control.

Both the British pilot and the Indian copilot were experienced at landing at Mangalore's tricky tabletop airport, officials said. However, they said human error might have been a factor.

The five-hour flight from Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, had 166 passengers and crew. Eight people survived the fiery crash. Officials said all the survivors had been in middle seats.

One survivor, passenger Umar Farooq, told local media from his hospital bed that he had jumped from the plane after impact. He walked, got a ride on a motorcycle, and then a three-wheeled auto-rickshaw taxi to the hospital, where he was being treated for burns to his face and hands.

"It has been a hair-raising experience, and I am fortunate to still be alive," he said.

Officials said that there were 23 children on board, including four infants. In addition to the pilots, the Boeing 737-800 carried a cabin crew of four.

"There was no SOS or any contact between the pilot and [air traffic control] after a clearance was given to land," said Peter Abraham, director of the Mangalore Airport. "Plus, after you have landed and are overshooting, there is just no time to tell the ATC anything, anyway."

"Primarily it looks like human error, but it could be technical also," Abraham said. "It is only after this inquiry is over that we will be able to get a clearer picture."

The aircraft continued past the runway over the few hundred feet of rough tarmac and dirt at the end of the strip, hit an antenna used to guide a plane's automatic pilot system, plowed through a barrier, and fell about 1,000 feet down a roughly 60-degree slope, tearing up trees as it went, breaking into pieces, and bursting into flames.

A resident who goes by only one name, Chandrashekhar, said he was awakened by a big explosion and ran with other villagers to the crash site. They heard women's and children's cries coming from the burning wreckage but couldn't reach the victims because of the intense heat.

They helped a few people who had been thrown clear, taking them to the main road. "By the time we returned, all the calls, cries had stopped, I guess they'd burned alive inside the wreckage," he said. "It was absolutely terrible."

The salvage operation Saturday was hampered by the terrain and rain-soaked ground.

Live images from the crash site showed relief workers, police, and residents in two lines passing stretchers laden with bodies and body parts up the slope.

State-owned Air India, which until relatively recently enjoyed a monopoly, has suffered from weak management systems, politician meddling, and safety problems, including reports of captains piloting their aircraft drunk, falling asleep and overshooting airports and, in one case last year, getting into a midair fistfight with the cabin crew.

Mohan Ranganathan, a former Air India pilot and aviation security expert, said word in the industry is that the airline issued a circular emphasizing the importance of smooth landings, which has led to pilots coming in fast and doing a "power on touchdown" maneuver in which they come in a little hard and fast for a smoother approach.