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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Indian Aviation Officials Say Crash Nearly Avoided

CHARKHI DADRI, India -- Indian searchers probed the scattered debris of the world's worst mid-air disaster for 51 people still missing Friday with growing indications that the catastrophe had almost been avoided.

A senior aviation official said initial evidence suggested that one of the planes had swerved moments before a Saudi Arabia Airlines Boeing 747 and a Kazakh Ilyushin 76 hit each other near New Delhi and killed 349 people Tuesday.

"From all accounts it was not a head-on collision. There are indications of banking by one of the planes, possibly to get out of the other's way," the official said.

Residents near the crash site 80 kilometers west of Delhi said earlier they believed the Saudi pilot had made a superhuman effort to avoid their villages. One described the escape of hundreds of people on the ground as miraculous.

The blazing jumbo, carrying 312 people, left a 6-meter crater in a mustard field and scattered wreckage over 4 square kilometers. Searchers have faced huge difficulties in locating the remains of all the passengers, most of them Indians going to work in Saudi Arabia. The authorities have the gruesome task of identifying charred and mangled bodies.

Police said 298 bodies had been recovered but only 124 identified. About 50 were sent to Delhi on Thursday and 80 were to follow Friday in trucks lined with ice. Relatives gathering at one major Delhi hospital to retrieve bodies for private funerals were being badgered by profiteers trying to sell them coffins at three or four times the normal price, Indian newspapers reported Friday. They also said the Delhi hospital was overwhelmed.

"More than 12 hours after their arrival, the bodies were yet to be embalmed and put in coffins. Some of them lay in the sun with crows hovering overhead," the Times of India said.

At Charkhi Dadri, dazed relatives continued to trickle into the hospital hoping to identify relatives. Some had travelled more than 1,000 kilometers.

Bodies, some charred beyond recognition, had been kept on melting ice slabs in an open courtyard and in rooms hastily converted into morgues. Some of the bodies were given funerals on Thursday with 76 Moslems laid in a mass grave and 15 Hindus cremated on a huge pyre. Three Christians were buried in a local cemetery. The Moslem burials continued into the night by the light of hurricane lamps as relatives wept.

All 37 victims on the chartered KazAir plane, which was taking traders to Delhi, have been identified. A Saudi newspaper said the victims on the Saudi airliner included 215 Indians, 13 Saudis, and three Pakistanis, but Indian authorities have not yet released an official passenger list indicating nationalities.

Nepal said there were 53 Nepalis on board the jumbo, most of them headed for jobs in Saudi Arabia as laborers, drivers and plumbers. There were also three Americans and one Briton aboard, officials said.

What caused the collision, India's worst aviation disaster, remained unclear on Friday but New Delhi said ageing airport equipment and language problems were not to blame. Most experts said one or both of the planes appeared to have been at the wrong height.