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At least 21 bodies are recovered in Nepal plane crash


Rescuers worked to recover the bodies at the site of the crash in the Himalayas.

By Bhadra Sharma and Karan Deep Singh


Rescue workers recovered 21 bodies Monday after a daylong effort to reach the site of a plane crash in the rocky heights of the Himalayas, according to officials in Nepal.


The Canadian-made De Havilland DHC-6 Twin Otter, operated by Tara Air and carrying 19 passengers and three crew members, took off Sunday morning from the central Nepali city of Pokhara and was headed for Jomsom, a tourist destination popular with trekkers.


The flight normally takes about 30 minutes, but the plane went down in bad weather with 13 Nepalis, four Hindu pilgrims from India and two German trekkers on board. Officials said they did not expect to find any survivors.


“We recovered 21 dead bodies. One is still missing,” said Netra Prasad Sharma, chief administrator of Mustang district, where the crash occurred.


Sharma said that rescue work had been halted in the late afternoon because of bad weather.


Earlier Monday, rainfall and fog made it difficult for rescuers to reach the site. Helicopters deployed Sunday by the Nepali army and private companies were diverted to Kathmandu, the capital, and Pokhara because of low visibility.


After conditions improved Monday morning, a helicopter carrying a senior army official, a police inspector and a guide managed to reach the location, at an elevation of 14,500 feet near the village of Thasang in Mustang district. A total of 15 rescuers had reached the spot by noon, authorities said.


“No one is alive,” said Narendra Shahi, an international mountain guide, who was sent to the crash site as part of the rescue operation. “The plane has crashed into pieces. It’s so heartbreaking.”


Bishnu Kumar K.C., a Nepal police spokesperson, said the bodies would be collected and taken to Pokhara or Kathmandu.


One of the bodies recovered Monday was that of Utsav Pokharel, a 25-year-old junior pilot on the flight.


“He always wanted to be a pilot,” his father, Maniram Pokharel, said as he burst into tears. “He left us too early.”


Pokharel was the first person from his remote village in Rukum district to become a pilot, family members said, after he learned to fly in the Philippines.


The family was so proud of him that they also enrolled Pokharel’s younger brother, Umesh, in a pilot training program in the Philippines.


“He has just three months left to complete his course,” said Pokharel, their father. “I am confused whether to ask him to be a pilot or ask him to leave.”


Nepali officials said Monday that the cause of the crash was not immediately clear. The most likely possibility, they said, was that the plane crashed into a mountain after it lost contact with air traffic controllers while navigating in particularly bad weather.


“Initially, the weather was good,” said Puskal Sharma, chief of the Jomsom airport, but it quickly “worsened just when we were asking the Tara Air plane for the final position. Then, we lost the connection immediately.”


Sharma said that two small planes had successfully landed at the Jomsom airport early Sunday. Jomsom is a favorite of trekkers because of its breathtaking snow-capped mountains. Hindu pilgrims from India, Nepal and other countries also visit the area to pray at the Muktinath temple. For many, a trip there is thought to offer a pathway to heaven. Among the most famous visitors was Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, who toured the temple in 2018.


To reach remote mountainous places like Jomsom, residents and visitors rely on small twin-engine planes. The route from Pokhara to Jomsom is considered one of the riskiest in Nepal because planes have to fly through narrow valleys, where visibility is often a challenge. Crashes are more common than usual because of frequent bad weather, rocky terrain and aging plane fleets.


In 2016, 23 people were killed when a Tara Air plane went down while on the same route as the one on Sunday. In 2018, a passenger plane from Bangladesh crashed in Kathmandu, killing 49 of the 71 people on board. In response to the poor safety record of Nepali airlines, the European Union has barred the planes from its airspace.


The Nepali crew members on the Tara Air flight that crashed Sunday were Capt. Prabhakar Prasad Ghimire, Pokharel and Kishmi Thapa, a flight attendant, Tara Air said.


At least seven of the Nepali passengers were from the same family, making a pilgrimage to Muktinath, according to Nepali media reports. The four pilgrims from India were a family from the western state of Maharashtra, according to Indian media reports.

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