Union minister V Muraleedharan on Saturday said the toll from the Air India Express plane crash in Kerala’s Kozhikode city could have been higher if the pilot had not switched off the engine on time, News18 reported. The minister of state for external affairs, who visited the site, told the television channel that the fuel tank of the passenger plane did not go up in flames because of the pilot’s actions.

The Boeing aircraft, which was repatriating Indians stranded in Dubai due to the coronavirus pandemic, overshot the tabletop runway of Karipur airport on Friday while landing in heavy rain. The flight was carrying 190 passengers and crew. At least 18 people were killed and more than 100 have been injured. The pilots of the plane, both of whom were also killed in the crash, have been identified as Wing Commander Deepak Vasant Sathe and Captain Akhilesh Kumar.

“The pilot switched off the engine and that could be the reason the plane did not catch fire,” Muraleedharan said. He also said the incessant rainfall could have also helped the plane not catch fire.

Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri, who reached Kozhikode on Saturday afternoon, said Sathe was one of the most experienced commanders with more than 10,000 flying hours, PTI reported. “The aircraft was captained and operated by one of our most distinguished, experienced commanders,” Puri told reporters. “He has landed on this very air piece, I think as many as 27 times including this year.”

Sathe was an ace fighter pilot with the Indian Air Force who flew planes for Air India before he went on to Air India Express flights. He was also an alumnus of the National Defence Academy and awarded the “sword of honour” when he graduated from the Air Force Academy in Dundigal near Hyderabad in June 1981. Kumar, his co-pilot, got married last year and joined the Air India in 2017, his cousin said.

One of the survivors of the plane crash said that Sathe used his presence of mind and averted a fire after the incident, according to the Hindustan Times. “It was raining heavily,” V Ibrahim, one of the passengers who survived with minor injuries, told the newspaper. “The pilot had given a warning before landing saying the weather was really bad. He tried for safe landing twice but lost control. The aircraft shot off the runway and skidded off and it broke into two pieces. It was a miraculous escape for many.”

His mother, Neela Sathe, said that he was “a great son and always first one to help others in need”, ANI reported.

The Directorate General of Civil Aviation said that the black box and cockpit voice recorder have been recovered. The Kerala government has announced Rs 10 lakh compensation to the families of those who died in the crash. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said the medical expenses of those undergoing treatment will be taken over by the state government.

These are the helpline numbers from the Ministry of External Affairs: 1800 118 797; +91 11 23012113; +91 11 23014104; +91 11 23017905.

Airport Control Room: 0483 2719493

Malappuram Collectorate: 0483 2736320

Kozhikode Collectorate: 0495 2376901

Air India Express helpline number in Sharjah: 00971 6 5970303.