Aircraft with crew and 225 passengers disintegrates


CHINA: Aviation investigators confirmed yesterday that the doomed China Airlines Boeing 747-200 jet, which crashed into the Taiwan Strait with 225 passengers and crew members on board on Saturday, disintegrated into four parts in mid-air before plunging into the sea.

Mystery surrounds the cause of the break-up of the Flight CI 611 which disappeared off the radar screen 20 minutes after taking off from Taipei at 3.08 p.m. local time (8.08 a.m. Irish time), en route to Hong Kong.

It split into four pieces as it dived into the sea near Penghu Island, off Taiwan's west coast, the chief crash investigator said yesterday. The Boeing 747-200's flight data and voice recorders, or "black boxes" have not been recovered.

No survivors have been found and coast guards and fishing boats plucked 83 bodies from choppy seas by late yesterday. As the search crews worked at recovering bodies, the sea reeked of jet fuel.

"We are very certain the plane disintegrated while above 30,000 feet," Mr Kay Yong, managing director of the Taiwan Aviation Safety Council, told a news conference. The council had contacted the US National Transportation Safety Board and the Boeing Company, he said. A Boeing team of investigators was on its way to Taiwan from the US.

The disaster dealt a fresh blow to the safety record of China Airlines, Taiwan's biggest carrier, which has had four air crashes since 1994.

Meanwhile, the search continued for the aircraft's two black boxes, in the hope they will provide a clue as to the cause of the disaster. Aviation authorities said the pilot had not issued any distress signals before the aircraft disappeared in clear weather.

The plane was almost 23 years old and had 65,000 flying hours clocked up. It had already been sold to Orient Thai, a Thai charter carrier, and was due to be delivered on June 20th.

Empty yellow body bags were stacked in piles as the first victims to be recovered were placed in a sports stadium in a local air force base, near Penghu's small port. Grieving relatives gathered to identify remains.

The crash is Asia's third air disaster since April. An Air China aircraft crashed in South Korea killing 128 on board, and a China Northern Airlines plane plunged into the Yellow Sea, killing all 112 people it was carrying.

President Chen Shui-bian of Taiwan offered his condolences to relatives of victims yesterday, and vowed to continue the search. Those aboard the plane included a family of eight, and another family of seven.