KATMANDU, Nepal – A small airplane crashed and caught fire Wednesday as it tried to land in foggy weather at a tiny mountain airport near Mount Everest, killing 18 people, including 16 tourists from Germany, Australia and Nepal, officials said.
Witnesses raced onto the tarmac in search of survivors but there was only one — the pilot.
The 19-seat Yeti Airlines plane, which had taken off from the capital, Katmandu, snagged its wheels on a security fence during its landing at Lukla airport, about 40 miles from Mount Everest, said Mohan Adhikari, general manager of the Katmandu airport.
The DeHavilland DHC-6 Twin Otter caught fire and came to a stop on the airport grounds, Adhikari said.
A fog had descended on the airport just before the crash, said Suraj Kunwar, who was at Lukla waiting for a flight.
"Suddenly there was a big bang, and flames came out of the plane," he said. "All the passengers waiting for planes ran to help douse the flames, but the passengers were already dead."
The tiny Lukla airport, little more than a runway carved into the side of the Himalayas at an altitude of 9,200 feet, is famous among travelers for its dramatic scenery, stomach-lurching landings — and occasional crashes. The runway ends in a steep drop of a few hundred feet. The Twin Otter is known for its ability to take off and land on short runways.
The visibility at the airport was about 1,310 feet, just enough for the aircraft's landing, he said.
Adhikari said 19 people were on board the plane, including 12 German, two Australian and two Nepalese tourists. There were also three Nepalese crew members — a pilot, co-pilot and flight attendant. The pilot was flown to Katmandu and hospitalized in critical condition though Vijay Shreshta, executive director of Yeti Airlines, said his injuries were not believed to be life-threatening.
The 12 Germans were on a tour run by Munich-based Hauser Exkursionen.
"We are completely shocked," said Michael Schott, who owns the company, adding that one of the Nepalese victims was the group's tour guide.
He declined to release the names of the victims, pending identification of the bodies and notification of their families.
The bodies were flown back to Katmandu by military helicopter and were unloaded by soldiers wearing jungle camouflage.
The airport is an important jumping-off point for trekkers and mountaineers heading to Everest.
The walk takes several days from there to Mount Everest Base Camp.
In 2005, nine passengers and three crew members survived a crash at the airport in a small Gorkha Airlines plane with minor injuries.