Nepali Times
Disastrous disaster management


INFERNO: Onlookers swarm to the burning Sita Air plane 20 minutes after it crashed on Friday morning.
The Sita Air crash near the airport on 28 September happened exactly one year after the Buddha Air crash at Kot Danda, and barely six months after an Agni Air plane hit a mountainside in Jomsom.

In the past six years alone, 114 people have been killed in airline accidents in Nepal, making our aviation safety record as bad as countries that are notoriously dangerous for flying like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria. The reasons are ineffective regulation, lack of a maintenance culture, poor crew training, and lax enforcement of procedures for bad weather flying.

Nepal's rugged terrain makes it one of the most challenging places to fly in the world, but monsoon clouds, inadequate navigation facilities, and the poor condition of airports make it even more treacherous. In addition, aviation in Nepal is governed by the same culture of carelessness, fatalism, and poor discipline that we see exhibited on the roads and highways every day.

We never learnt our lessons from past accidents and the recommendations of the inquiry reports after previous disasters were never implemented, so it is likely that the tragic deaths of those who perished last Friday on the soggy banks of the Manohara River will also have been in vain.

Four hours later, police had cordoned off the area but in the process tampered with the evidence air crash investigators would need.
More than 90 per cent of the crashes in Nepal have been caused by pilot error, usually by flying into a mountain in poor visibility. However, the Sita Air crash seems to have been the first known fatal crash caused by a bird strike in Nepal.

Post-accident crisis management has been almost non-existent in Nepal. After the Buddha Air crash last year, thousands of gawkers flocked to the impact site trampling on evidence, picking up souvenirs, and obstructing rescue and police vehicles. Eye-witnesses saw police themselves pocketing valuables from the bodies and the wreckage.

To be sure, Kot Danda villagers who were first on the scene helped pull out a wounded passenger from the plane and rushed him to hospital, where he died. But the lack of crowd control after an accident hampered rescue. People were at the scene of the Sita Air crash last week within minutes, and had they tried to get the passengers out they could have been killed as well because the plane caught fire and exploded.

However, thousands of people had gathered to look at the plane on fire, some wading across the river to get closer. The sheer mass of onlookers obstructed fire and rescue vehicles, and the first police on the scene did not cordon off the area with the standard 50-m no-go radius. Traffic police should have been keeping the road clear for rescue vehicles, but became onlookers themselves. Fire trucks had to project foam on the burning plane from 50m away. The head of the Civil Aviation Authority was busy giving live tv interviews, with the burning wreckage serving as backdrop, instead of coordinating rescue and protecting the integrity of the crash site for investigators.

Debris from the bird-strike appears to have hit the tail rudder making it difficult for the pilot to control the stricken plane as he prepared to ditch.
The disaster of the plane crash was followed by the disaster of ineffective crisis management. This calls for a serious review of police, fire and rescue training, and putting a clear chain of command in place. During the Buddha Air crash, the army had a ground team that coordinated effectively with rescue helicopters to clear a helipad at the edge of the forest. Body bags, gloves, and stretchers were all ready. If someone has to take charge of rescue, the army seems to be best equipped to do so.

The Sita Air crash also brings up the problem of bird activity on and above the runway. Kathmandu airport is now surrounded by garbage-filled urban sprawl, the nearby Manohara and Bagmati rivers are dumping grounds for animal carcasses. The airport management is supposed to have bird control officers, where were they on Friday morning?

There was serious mismanagement of a crisis situation last week, it showed there has been virtually no training and simulation for response that is rapid, coordinated, and multi-tasked. If this is what happens after the crash of a small plane, imagine the chaos and confusion after a bigger disaster, or a mega earthquake in Kathmandu.

Andy Joshy is a technical adviser to the Ministry of Health and Population.

FLYING INDISCIPLINE: Aviation in Nepal is governed by carelessness, fatalism, and poor discipline.

FOUND IT: NA personnel recover the black box from the crash site. Black box was found.

Read also:
A safer sky, VIJAY LAMA
An airline captain suggests immediate steps to minimise the dangers of flying in Nepal

Al Jazeera coverage of the crash

1. koji
It is interesting that this time UK investigators have come to inspect the wreckage. I wonder how their report will compare to the Aviation Authority's report. And if they find a bird.  

2. I'm a firefighter
Oh, please don't be too critical. I don't like it at all when people put us down, as if we don't know what we are doing. Let's get real for a minute, shall we? Given the state of our state, I think we're doing just fine in the area of disaster management. 

That being said, I want to offer my kudos to the rescue team for extinguishing the fire and preventing deaths on the ground. I think my fellow firefighters did marvelous job, given the training we receive and, of course, the money we get paid. Yes, it's true that we hardly have a chance to attend trainings, and our salary of 12,000 rupees a month is barely enough to pay for rent and food. Yet, we are there to serve people, rain or shine. 

Remember the guy who was busy giving live interview on TV while the passengers were suffering excruciating deaths? Yes, he gets to attend all the training seminars and takes home most of the money. For that reason, he is the real hero! No, I'm not jealous of him at all. Nonetheless, let's be glad that at least my rescue team arrived at the scene before the fire extinguished itself. 

As far as onlookers getting too close is concerned, I'm not surprised a bit, because trying to secure a spot to see live event, no matter how dangerous, is a normal thing around here. Maybe it's our newly acquired behavior, a bi-product of violence and killings that we're so accustomed to. Who knows? Perhaps, fires and explosions excite our nerves, giving us the much needed dose of live entertainment. Lastly, don't worry, "Andy Joshy," it's all a "OK" in my country. No worries, no fear!      

3. Yam Gurung
Is it true you can buy pilot licence in Nepal???...

4. Flexible 1
I hope every potential tourist to Nepal reads the comment of #2 Im a Firefighter above. I hope all the families of the bereaved read it too. I hope all potential investors in Nepal read it. 

5. Highlander
I am not sure of how the writer came up with a conclusion that 90% of air crashes are due to pilot error. Couldn't there be the weather issues for instance? Also the aircrafts that fly in Nepal have poor navigation tools like ground proximity warning system which costs thousands of dollars. So I will have to disagree with the writer in this regard.

Mr Yam Gurung, what made you think that we can buy pilot's license in Nepal? Where did you get that terrible info?

6. Anand Joshy

Mr. Firefighter, I appreciate your feedback and agree totally with the plight of actual field workers like you who risk to save lives and minimize damage of life and property when accidents occur. Through my article without pinpointing anyone, I just wanted to highlight that if we don't learn from our mistakes and prepare ourselves better, more lives could be lost.

I understand very well the situation of our firefighters and have the highest respect for the brave life saving acts you all do despite the lack of facilities and proper trainings. I am hinting that if we are not organized then there could be more disastrous results with more casualties, which none of us would like. It's my sincere feeling that no matter how many efforts all are putting to do what they do in their best capacity, we need to take these matters in extreme seriousness and better ourselves so as to prevent and preserve lives and property. I totally agree that those who act should be the ones to be trained and that the Government give the highest thought to this in the coming days with management of crisis and disasters so that no one is obstructing each other in the line of duty bringing less efficiency in what you do endangering the lives of people.

can we even imagine what would happen if the plane that had just taken of with fuel had burst when all those spectators and bystanders were so close the plane? Could the firefighters and ambulances have arrived a little sooner if traffic management was possible once such accidents occur with diversions, etc? Maybe we could have saved some lives if not all. I feel we should all strive to perform better with better coordination and preparedness.

Once again with due respect to your profession and with greatest admiration for your efforts in saving lives and property, I salute you who dare to risk your own lives to save others.

Anand Joshy

7. Concerned
How about the army and police personnel who are always there to rescue and clean up the mess? Do they get a proper counselling after the horrible mess they go through? Picking up torn up charred bodies is definitely not for the faint of the heart but these men/women are always there when accidents happen and I always wonder and pray for their good mental health.

8. Dorji Tsering Sherpa
Disaster Management and Grief management are some of the most important service that a government can give to the potential victims and the family member of the victims of those who have perished in such kind of accident. Pleased to know that Mr. Andy Joshi has indepth knowledge on the subject of disaster management. I have seen and know that most of the crowds surrounding the plane crash sites as rescuer or as by stander are those seeking to get hold of the valuables from the dead passengers. It is one of the most degrading act when these human vultures take away some of the most sentimental things from our loved ones. We, who have lost our family members in such air accidents need understanding and support from the professional Grief management experts. Dr. Niti Rana is an expert in this field and she has helped us a lot to move on with life. Hope those in the concerned take note of such men and women.

9. Troubled
Hi Andy Joshi,

Its appalling indeed to hear about the Nepal aircrashes taking a toll one after the other. Something is terribly wrong, and i am glad you brought out the topic on disaster management, lack of adequate facilities and trainings to the needed. 
It is a shame indeed and high time we start bringing more awareness on this topic. As a simple citizen, how can we help this situation besides just treating this as just another sad news or event each time? I feel strongly for the grieving families. Last year's crash my sister lost her friend, and this Sita air crash my friend lost her brother. It troubles me to even imagine what she will go through during this year's "bhai tika" when she will be missing her only brother....and all the other houses are alight with lights and laughter. 
Sentiments aside, can we have more help from the media to bring about an awareness on this whole escapade. I live in California and it scares me each time i read these kind of news from back home (the further away you are, the scarier things tend to look i think) and i simply do not feel at all secure about my old parents taking these tiny flights back and forth sometimes...after i recently saw the gruesome pics (which i hope Nepalese media put a control on) and read the articles i seriously could not sleep the whole can we have a safer sky? Why do we not value and respect  human lives? 
You mentioned in your article that around 114 have lost their lives in the past 2 years. Can we get more 'junta' start questioning on that? I love your article but i hope its not the end and not just another news story, and hope we can have a bigger reaction/response from the common man. Why are there so much bans and protests on Hindi movies, fuel hikes, loadshedding, jaati bhed bhavs, etc etc...and no protests on real Lives Lost in our country? 'Time we showed some more respect twards these lives. Yesterday it was my sister's friend, today my friend's brother and tomorrow it could be Me or You right? Are people thinking they will never become victims ever of these air crashes? do we not care at all, or are we planning to live on denial mode everytime... From a layman's point of view, i just wish to boycott all these flights and make all my family and  friends do the same till the Aviation teams or authorities whoever take concrete measures to improve their aircrafts, facilities, etc. Angers me actually. This is sheer human slaughter business. 

I plan to come next month to Nepal for 2 weeks. i request for your help and your team's for a candlelight gathering at 5 pm on Nov 16. Hope we can meet and observe silence and take out 20 minutes of our time to mourn for those who have lost their lives. 
Thank you!

10. Troubled again
I would be grateful if NT helps me to popularize his candlelight gathering on 16 Nov. at 5 PM at Durbar Marg in the memory of those innocent lives lost. This is an awareness campaign whereby we will just encourage people to start questioning on why there are so many continuous plane crashes and why do we continue entertaining them. 'High time we boycott these domestic airlines till concrete amendments are made. Why do these news always splash on the front page as breaking news and are soon forgotten in a day or two...where is that compassion and humanity? CAAN and the other responsible authorities will have to give us an explanation now !!! we need an explanation on how they are compensating for those who died and who are to die....They are now answerable to the common public....Until then we take the family and relatives in nepal will take the road and only the road...and we will make sure gradually everyone else does the same. Better to travel more hours than lose the life in a few minutes... Please refer to the link of the event:

thank you! 

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)