RESCUERS were last night searching the wreckage of a passenger plane which banked sharply after takeoff and clipped a taxi and a motorway bridge before crashing into a river in Taiwan.
Officials said 31 people were confirmed dead, most of them Chinese, after the TransAsia Airways plane with 58 people on board came down in the Keelung River following takeoff from an airport serving Taipei.
They warned the death toll was expected to rise.
Rescuers in dinghies pulled 15 people alive from the wreckage during daylight. After dark, they brought in a crane to hoist the fuselage of the wrecked plane from the shallow river. More bodies are expected to be recovered when rescue crews complete a search of submerged wreckage.
Dramatic video showed the plane as it pivoted onto its side while zooming towards a road bridge, hitting the taxi.
There was speculation the crew may have turned the plane sharply to follow the line of the river and avoid crashing into a high-rise residential area, but Taiwan’s aviation authority said it had no evidence of that.
Taiwanese television replayed a recording of the plane’s final contact with the control tower in which the crew called out “Mayday” three times. The recording offered no direct clues as to why the plane was in distress.
It was the second plane from the airline to crash in the past year.
The flight had taken off at 11:53am from Taipei’s downtown Sungshan Airport en route to the outlying Taiwanese-controlled Kinmen islands.
The crew issued the mayday call shortly after takeoff, Taiwanese authorities said.
TransAsia director Peter Chen said contact with the plane was lost four minutes after takeoff. He said weather conditions were suitable for flying and the cause of the accident was unknown.
“This aircraft in the accident was the newest model. It hadn’t been used for even a year,” he said.
Thirty-one passengers were from China, Taiwan’s tourism bureau said. Kinmen’s airport is a common link between Taipei and China’s Fujian province.
Taiwan’s Civil Aeronautics Administration said 31 people were confirmed dead, 15 injured were rescued and 12 were still missing. It said two people on the ground were hurt.
Wu Jun-hong, a Taipei fire official co-ordinating the rescue, said the missing were either still in the fuselage or had perhaps been swept downriver.
“At the moment, things don’t look too optimistic,” he said. “Those in the front of the plane are likely to have lost their lives.”
Another ATR 72 operated by the same Taipei-based airline crashed in the Taiwan-controlled islands of Penghu on 23 July last year, killing 48 people. The cause is still under investigation.
ATR, a French-Italian consortium based in Toulouse, said it was sending a team to Taiwan to help in the Taipei investigation.
The ATR 72-600 that crashed on Wednesday was being flown by a pilot who had 4,900 hours’ flying experience, said Taiwan’s Civil Aeronautics Administration. Aviation experts said possible factors in the crash included pilot error, weather or freak incidents such as bird strikes.
Many pilots, engineers and technicians in South-east Asia have been lured to more attractive jobs in the Middle East, which boast higher salaries and the opportunity to fly in sleek new aircraft. The shortage of trained staff means there are fewer workers for an ever-growing workload.
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