A plane with 98 people on board crashed shortly after takeoff in Kazakhstan early Friday, killing at least 12 and sending 54 to hospitals, authorities said. Ten of them were in critical condition.
Local authorities had earlier put the death toll at 15, but the Interior Ministry of the Central Asian nation later revised the figure downward, without explaining.
The cause of the crash was unclear, but authorities were looking at two possible scenarios — pilot error and technical failure, Kazakhstan’s deputy prime minister Roman Sklyar said.
The Bek Air aircraft hit a concrete fence and a two-story building after taking off from Almaty International Airport, which said the plane lost attitude and “fell off the radar” before dawn, shortly after 7:00 a.m. Almaty is Kazakhstan’s largest city and former capital.
In a statement on its Facebook page, the airport said there was no fire and a rescue operation got underway immediately following the crash.
Around 1,000 people were working at the snow-covered site of the crash in Almerek village, just beyond the end of the runway.
A reporter for the Reuters news service said the area was blanketed with thick fog soon after the crash.
Agence France Presse said a video released by the Kazakh emergencies committee showed the front of the plane crushed into a partially collapsed house as rescuers tried to pull people from the wreckage. They were “reaching into the windows of the shattered cockpit.”
Dozens of people lined up in Almaty in front of a local blood bank to donate blood for the injured.
The footage showed the rear of the plane lying in the field next to the airport.
The plane was flying to Nur-Sultan, the country’s capital, formerly known as Astana.
Reuters reports the news website Tengrinews quoted a survivor as saying she heard a “terrifying sound” before the plane started losing altitude. “The plane was flying with a tilt. Everything was like in a movie: screaming, shouting, people crying,” she said.
Reuters said another passenger, businessman Aslan Nazaraliyev, told the Vremya newspaper the plane started shaking while it was climbing about two minutes after takeoff. “At some point we started falling, not vertically, but at an angle. It seemed like control over the plane was lost,” he said.
The aircraft was identified as a Fokker-100, a medium-sized, twin-turbofan jet airliner. It was reported to be 23 years old and was most recently certified to operate in May. The company manufacturing the aircraft went bankrupt in 1996 and the production of the Fokker-100 stopped the following year.
All Bek Air and Fokker-100 flights in Kazakhstan have been suspended pending the investigation of the crash, the country’s authorities said.
AFP said Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev pledged to provide families of the victims with compensation and tweeted that those responsible “will be severely punished in accordance with the law.”
He also said that a government commission had been set up to seek the cause of the crash.
The U.S. mission in Kazakhstan tweeted its condolences and said it “is closely monitoring the situation and, if necessary, is ready to provide Consular Support.”
Kazakhstan’s air safety record is far from spotless. In 2009, all Kazakh airlines – with the exception of the flagship carrier Air Astana – were banned from operating in the European Union because they didn’t meet international safety standards. The ban was lifted only in 2016.