By Asad Hashim (Reuters)
ISLAMABAD - Pakistan on Thursday mourned the 47 victims of its deadliest plane crash in four years, among them a famed rockstar-turned-Muslim evangelist, two infants and three foreigners, as officials sought to pinpoint the cause of the disaster.
Engine trouble was initially believed responsible, but many questions remain, stirring new worries about the safety record of money-losing state carrier Pakistani International Airlines.
The ATR-42 aircraft involved in the crash had undergone regular maintenance, including an "A-check" certification in October, said airline chairman Muhammad Azam Saigol.
"I want to make it clear that it was a perfectly sound aircraft," Saigol said.
The aircraft appeared to have suffered a failure in one of its two turboprop engines just before the crash, he added, but this would have to be confirmed by an investigation.
"I think there was no technical error or human error," Saigol told a news conference late on Wednesday. "Obviously there will be a proper investigation."
Television images appeared to show rescue officials retrieving the aircraft's "black box" flight recorder from the wreckage, and the airline confirmed the recovery to the Geo News channel.
Outpourings of grief erupted online soon after flight PK661 smashed into the side of a mountain near the town of Havelian, in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, late on Wednesday afternoon, after taking off from the mountain resort of Chitral.
It crashed just 50 km (31 miles) short of its destination, the international airport in Islamabad, the capital.
Worried relatives of the dead gathered in stunned silence at the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences in Islamabad, some weeping quietly, others besieging officials with questions.
"What can I tell you?" said Raja Amir, as he waited for his mother's remains. "I don't know what we will get of her. There is still another hell to go through."
Remains are being brought by helicopter to Islamabad, where DNA tests will be used to identify them, authorities said.
ROCK STAR AND ROYALTY
Much of the public's anguish focused on Junaid Jamshed, the vocalist of Vital Signs, one of Pakistan's first and most successful rock and pop bands of the 1990s, who abandoned his musical career in 2001 to become a traveling evangelist with the conservative Tableeghi Jamaat group.
Many comments on social network Twitter pointed up the contrast between his two roles, first as a heartthrob pop sensation singing about love and heartbreak, and then as a stern, bearded preacher admonishing young people for straying from Islam.
"Junaid Jamshed's journey was so quintessentially Pakistani. Conflicted, passionate, devoted, ubersmart, and so, so talented. Tragic loss," Mosharraf Zaidi, an Islamabad-based development professional and analyst, said in a tweet.
Others simply shared his band's many chart-topping hits, such as 'Dil Dil Pakistan', which has become an unofficial anthem, played at public gatherings since its release in 1987.
Among the 46 others who perished were two infants, three foreigners and five crew listed on the passenger manifest.
Two Austrians and a Chinese man were among the foreigners, the airline said. Foreign tourists increasingly flock to Chitral every year, besides thousands of domestic visitors, as Pakistan emerges from years of violence caused by a Taliban insurgency.
The dead included a member of Chitral's traditional royal family, his wife and family, besides a regional administrative official, Osama Ahmad Warraich, killed with his wife and infant daughter, the Dawn newspaper said.
The aircraft, made by French company ATR in 2007, had racked up 18,739 flight hours since joining PIA's fleet that year.
Its captain, Saleh Janjua, had logged more than 12,000 flight hours over his career, the airline said.
Concerns are growing over air safety as media in recent years have reported near-misses following overshot runways, engines catching fire and landing gear deployment failures.
In the worst such disaster, in 2010, all 152 people on board were killed when a passenger plane operated by airline Air Blue crashed in heavy rain near Islamabad.
Two years later, all 127 aboard were killed when a plane operated by Bhoja Air crashed near Islamabad.
(Additional reporting by Jibran Ahmad, Amjad Ali, Mehreen Zahra-Malik Editing by Kay Johnson and Clarence Fernandez)