hat November evening, the people of Charkhi Dadri town, about 100km west of Delhi, were done with the day’s work out in the fields. Some of them heard the sky detonate with thunder and erupt into flames. On the ground, doors and windows crumbled. Glass shards flew through the air.
Mistaking it for an earthquake, residents streamed out of their homes, only to find over 500 tonnes of material pouring out from the sky—what an India Today story vividly described as “the equivalent of 600 Maruti cars”. The planes plunged into the mustard and cotton fields, miraculously hitting no one on the ground. There were rumours of a few survivors found in the wreckage, but none were ever brought to a hospital.
At about 9pm, as Prannoy Roy finished reading for The News Tonight, the daily English bulletin on Doordarshan, wire services broke the story of a mid-air collision just outside Delhi. Most journalists had already left for the day, and the crowd at the studios of NDTV, a private news production company, was thinning. Writer and film-maker Natasha Badhwar, then a 25-year-old cameraperson two years out of Jamia Millia Islamia University, quickly volunteered herself for the story. Along with reporter Radhika Bordia and camera assistant Kanan Patra, she got into an office vehicle and headed towards Charkhi Dadri. As they approached the site, they saw a massive inferno raging in the distance, ringed by smaller fires.
They got out of the car and began to walk through the debris and darkness. When Badhwar struck something, the group stopped and switched on the camera light. A stiff body swam into view, dead, but not burnt or broken. The man looked in death as he might have in life. How do you film a dead body, Badhwar wondered. “There was a sense of horror I could not shut out,” she said. “There was a sense of incredulity: How could this happen? How could two planes collide?”
Through the night, journalists arrived to scenes of damage and disarray. Passports, bags of food, toys, slippers, wallets, wrenched-open suitcases and airplane seats were flung around. Disembodied human limbs lay scattered like confetti. The full horror would not be apparent until sunrise, but the acrid stench of burning fuselage and singed remains had already begun choking the air.
At one point, the grandson of a prominent politician waltzed in, chaperoned by a group of sidekicks and handlers. He had no reason to be there but quickly became the centre of attention. When asked what he was doing there, he smarmily replied, “Plane curiosity.”
Through the night, villagers tried to find survivors as emergency services arrived. By the morning, several bodies were moved into a school which had been converted to a makeshift morgue. Debris had scattered over a radius of several kilometres, complicating search and rescue operations.
KPS Nair was among the first team of investigators and diplomats to reach the scene as dawn broke. Then a Deputy Director with the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), Nair had been in a meeting on air safety when news filtered in the previous evening. The irony was inescapable. “My first thought was, my god!” he recalled over the phone in June 2020. “Why do such things happen in spite of the efforts of human beings to make better flying machines and systems?”
As lead investigator, his first impulse was to locate the “black boxes”, vermilion-coloured crash-proof casings that held the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) and the flight data recorder (FDR). The CVR, which saved the last 30 minutes of cockpit conversation, could provide precious insight into what the crew had said to each other. The FDR would provide readings on altitude, speed, flight path and engine power to help build a picture of both planes’ vital parameters. “This,” Nair explained, “is the most important tool in the hands of an investigator from the accident site.”
Both black boxes were found before nightfall on the day following the accident. The cockpit of the Saudi aircraft was stuck deeper in the ground, irrevocably damaged, none of its instruments readable. All three of its altimeters were destroyed in the fire.
The Kazakh plane had suffered less damage and yielded four altimeters. Two of them, curiously, showed different readings: 4,443m (14,576 feet) and 4,540m (14,895 feet). The other two were unreadable.
Nair scoured the fields, analysing the debris scattered across two sites seven kilometres apart, searching for clues in the carcasses of the two planes. “We approach any accident with an open mind,” he said. “We ask, did everyone involved apply the necessary procedures? The contributing factors we look at include the ATC communications, pilot error, engineering and maintenance aspects.”
AK Chopra, then head of air safety for the North region at the DGCA, also reached the site with his team. Chopra sensed something puzzling, even counter-intuitive. The frontal structure of the Kazakh flight was mostly intact, which indicated that this hadn’t been a head-on collision. If the Kazakh plane was supposed to have been higher (15,000 feet), why did a primary assessment suggest that it had hit the Saudi plane from below?
By mid-afternoon, just 19 bodies had been claimed from the morgue. Rescue workers tried to pick through the debris, retrieving limbs and luggage. Badhwar even encountered the studio in-charge from Jamia’s Mass Communication Research Centre, mourning the loss of a younger brother who had been on the flight.
For at least 15 hours after the crash, there was little sense of sanctity about the site, which was only cordoned off much later. Some people rifled through the wreckage and corpses, trying to make off with the spoils. But for the most part, people were kind and helpful, bringing sheets from their homes for the bodies, volunteering tractors in search efforts, and offering tea to families.
Over time, the horror of losing a loved one morphed into the numbing pain of dealing with paperwork. Relatives scrambling to apply for compensation and obtain death certificates shuttled from one office to another. The Saudis announced compensation of up to GBP 12,000 for the families of passengers, and some compensation for the villagers in whose fields the flights had crashed.
In the end, 94 bodies were charred beyond recognition or totally mutilated. They lay piled up in the morgue, their limbs on ice. Many of the dead were from mofussil areas. Their families would hear about the tragedy only much later, particularly since some didn’t even know their relatives were on board. Others, perhaps, never found out at all, given the underhand manner in which agents and touts recruited people for jobs abroad.
After 15 days in the morgue, the unclaimed bodies were divided in proportion to the Hindus and Muslims on board according to the passenger manifest, a compromise between community leaders following an initial dispute. First, everyone went to the Muslim burial ground; later they went to the crematorium. Badhwar, still processing the disaster she had covered, attended the mass funerals and filmed them. “The smell of burning flesh still haunted me,” she said. “I felt I had some undone mourning to do.”