Analysis of a Crash: First Responders Save Lives, Bolstered by U.S. Engagement

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People stand around at the Fire Rescue Station at Tribhuvan International Airport
U.S. Pacific Command-funded U.S. Crash Fire Rescue Station at Tribhuvan International Airport in Nepal.

Analysis of a Crash: First Responders Save Lives, Bolstered by U.S. Engagement

U.S. Government-funded programs and training make a real difference in the capabilities of our partners overseas. It is rare that we see multiple interventions and programs successfully come together in one event, but that occurred on March 12, 2018, at Nepal’s only international airport -- Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA). As U.S.-Bangla Flight #211 from Dhaka was landing at TIA, it narrowly missed the runway and crashed into a nearby field. Tragically, 51 passengers and crew lost their lives. Thanks to the bravery and skills of first responders from the Nepali Army, airport firefighters, and airport management, however, 20 individuals aboard the flight survived. A notable dynamic that contributed to the quick and effective actions of the Nepali first responders was a diverse set of cooperative engagements, trainings, and projects initiated and funded by the United States. U.S. investments in individuals, multilateral training, capacity building, and infrastructure development helped save lives on what otherwise became a day of mourning for many. 

The People

As Flight #211 skidded off the extreme end of the runway, it burst into flames in an open field adjacent to a Nepali Army Engineer Battalion. Immediately, Lieutenant Colonel Puran Ghale led his troops to the scene. His soldiers pulled survivors from the still-burning wreckage of the plane despite the risk and the complexity of the crash site. Lieutenant Colonel Ghale is an alumnus of several U.S. Department of Defense and Department of State programs, including the Naval Postgraduate School and the International Visitor Leadership Program. The Army Engineers routinely participate in Disaster Response Exercises and Exchanges --  biannual interagency disaster response workshops, exchanges, and exercises jointly facilitated by the Nepali Army and U.S. Pacific Command.  Meanwhile, on the other side of the runway, the Directorate General of Army Aviation (DGAA) also rushed to the downed aircraft  These officers and soldiers regularly participated in exchanges and exercises with United States Pacific Command over the last five years. Under the command of Pilot Major General Sudheer Shrestha, the DGAA served as the communications link between airport management and the Nepali Army. He is also a longtime friend of the United States’ Pacific Air Forces, who hosted him three times at the Pacific Air Chiefs Symposium. 

The Projects

Within three minutes of the crash, airport firefighters began to douse the plane with foam. They quickly got the fire under control, enabling responders to cut through the plane’s fuselage and rescue survivors. The firefighters were deployed from the Airport Crash/Fire Rescue Building that the United States Army Corps of Engineers built and donated to Nepal in 2015. This building housed the airport’s foam storage tanks and granted firefighters easy access to vital rescue equipment. An additional joint project that was critical to the operation was the creation of a Disaster Response Plan for the airport, which the Department of Defense, in collaboration with USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, started with the airport authorities in 2013.  After the crash, airport leadership coordinated the rapid closure of the airport, ambulance access to the airfield, and the overall flow of vehicles and people in support of the response. The exceptional responsiveness of airport leadership in the immediate wake of the tragedy was possible due in large part to the jointly developed Disaster Response Plan.

The Results 

As the sun set that evening, airport operations resumed. Restoring normal air traffic in just a few hours was a significant accomplishment -- and a vital one for a country with only one international airport. Nepalis deservedly heaped praise on the first responders.  The ability of firefighters, soldiers, and airport leaders to manage this terrible event quickly and effectively undoubtedly saved lives on the ground. At U.S. Embassy Kathmandu, we are proud to have played a vital part in the equipping, capacity building, training, and professional development of key individuals and institutions. 

About the Author: Lieutenant ColoneGregory Pipes serves as Defense Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Kathmandu, Nepal. 

Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.com.