BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan (NBC News) – A cargo jet crashed into a village near Kyrgyzstan’s main airport on Monday, killing dozens of people on the ground.
The Boeing 747 had been trying to land in intermittent dense fog, local officials told NBC News. The aircraft had five people on board.
Tolgonai Stamaliyeva, a government spokesperson, said the plane destroyed more than 20 houses.
Plumes of smoke rose above the crash site, with some buildings razed to the ground and others pierced by parts of the plane.
The torn-off tail assembly, rotated upside down, towered above a one-story house.
More than 1,000 rescue workers were at the scene by late morning.
A dozen body bags were laid out on the ground in the yard of one of the homes. A car parked nearby was mangled, and a fridge lying open nearby.
Reports of the death toll on Monday ranged from 37 people according to emergency officials in the Central Asian nation, to 31 reported by the presidential press office. Fifteen people — including six children — were hospitalized.
Locals said they had initially thought the area was struck by an earthquake.
“I woke up because of a bright red light outside,” Baktygul Kurbatova, who was slightly injured, told local television. “I couldn’t understand what was happening. It turns out the ceiling and the walls were crashing on us. I was so scared but I managed to cover my son’s face with my hands so that debris would not fall on him.”
Authorities said the plane was supposed to make a stopover at Manas airport, near the capital city Bishkek, on its way from Hong Kong to Istanbul. It crashed when trying to land in poor visibility at 7:31 a.m. local time (8:31 pm ET).
Kyrgyzstan’s transport ministry initially identified the plane as a Turkish Airlines Boeing 747-400, but the company said it belonged to another Turkish firm, ACT Airlines.
“Our condolences to the families of those who have lost their lives in the tragic incident involving an ACT Airlines aircraft in Kyrgyzstan,” Turkish Airlines said on its Twitter account.
One of the two flight recorders has been recovered at the scene, the office of the Kyrgyz prime minister said on Monday afternoon.
Manas airport spokeswoman Alia Kurbanova denied that conditions were too poor to land safely.
“We’ve had 11 planes land that night. There was fog on and off, but planes were landing,” Kurbanova said by phone.