A plane flying into Istanbul’s Sabiha Gokcen International Airport on Wednesday skidded off the runway while landing in bad weather and broke apart, killing three people and injuring 179, authorities in Turkey said.

The plane crashed into a field and broke into three pieces.

Passengers were seen scrambling through the fuselage to escape, in what the Transportation Ministry described as a “rough landing.”

The plane was apparently buffeted by strong winds and heavy rain lashing Istanbul, Turkey‘s largest city.  

Istanbul Govenor Ali Yerlikaya said the plane failed to “hold onto the runway” and skidded some 50-60 metres (54-64 yards) before it dropped into the ditch from a height of about 30 metres (98 feet).

“We are deeply saddened … (But) we are very happy that we escaped a greater accident,” Yerlikaya said, adding that the plane could have burst into flames.

Health Minister Fahrettin Koca reported early on Thursday that three people had died and 179 required care at multiple hospitals.

The Boeing 737 operated by Turkish low-cost carrier Pegasus Airlines had come from the Aegean port city of Izmir, NTV television reported.

Turkey plane crash

At least there people were killed and many more injured in the crash [Murad Sezer/Reuters]

The plane was carrying 171 passengers and six crew members, the governor said, while Turkish media reports said there were 12 children on board.

Survivor Dogus Bilgic, 24, told Turkish television channel NTV that he fled the smashed plane through a gap near his seat and was one of the first passengers to get out.

“We travelled (on the runway) for some 20 or 30 seconds, then all of a sudden we flew off the runway,” he said while seated in a wheelchair because of a leg injury. “It happened in seconds.”

“I was seated in 25C. I believe the plane broke apart at row 26,” Bilgic recalled, adding that he threw himself out of the plane when he saw the opening.

“The front (of the plane) was in a terrible state. I saw, after I was on the ground, that it had completely broken apart,” he said.

As other passengers emerged from the wreckage, Bilgic said he helped two or three to the ground.

“I carried them somewhere because they weren’t doing as well as us,” he said, then ran away from the plane with others, fearing a possible explosion. “There was complete chaos,” he said.

NTV showed images of the badly damaged plane and flames inside, which were later put out by firefighters.

Second accident in a month

Pegasus is a privately-owned, low-cost carrier based in Istanbul that flies 97 routes, mostly within Turkey and to destinations in Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia. 

The accident comes a month after a Pegasus plane with 164 people on board skidded off the runway at the same airport on January 7. There no injuries on that occasion.

“Pegasus are known for their low fares but it would be unfair to brand them as unsafe just because they offer very competitive fares,” said aviation specialist Alex Macheras. 

“But there will be serious questions asked now that this airline has suffered what is now its second runway excursion in just four weeks at this point.” 

As darkness fell, dozens of rescue crew members congregated around the flood-lit fuselage, including around the cockpit, which had flipped over. The plane was a Boeing 737 that was 11 years old, according to the flight tracking website Flightradar24.

“We are aware of the media reports and we are gathering more information,” Peter Pedraza, a Boeing spokesman, said.

NTV said the injured included the plane’s two pilots, who it said were in serious condition. The television channel broadcast a recording of the communications between the pilots and air traffic control in which the pilots are told that previous flights had reported strong tailwinds.

“According to the information we have, there was a rough landing. The accident occurred after (the plane) could not decelerate and rammed into a field from the end of the runway,” Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency quoted Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Mehmet Cahit Turhan as saying.

Prosecutors opened an investigation of the accident, the agency said.