Taiwan airline suspects bad weather caused crash
TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — An airline said Thursday it suspected typhoon weather caused one of its planes to crash land on a small Taiwanese island, killing 48 people.
The ATR-72 operated by Taiwan's TransAsia Airways was carrying 58 passengers and crew when it crashed into houses on the Penghu island chain in the Taiwan Strait between Taiwan and China late Wednesday, authorities said. The plane was on a flight from the city of Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan.
Two people killed on the plane were French citizens and the rest Taiwanese, an airline representative, Phoebe Lu, told The Associated Press on Thursday. The airline identified the French passengers as Jeromine Deramond and Penelope Luternauer.
The airline said one of the injured 10 survivors had gone home, and that five local residents had been hurt on the ground but they were also treated and released.
The twin-engine turboprop crashed while making a second landing attempt, Taiwan transportation Minister Yeh Kuang-shih told reporters.
Penghu, a scenic chain of 64 islets, is a popular tourist site about 150 kilometers (90 miles) southwest of the Taiwanese capital, Taipei.
The crash of Flight GE222 was Taiwan's first fatal air accident in 12 years and came after Typhoon Matmo passed across the island, causing heavy rains that continued into Wednesday night. About 200 airline flights had been canceled earlier in the day due to rain and strong winds.
The government's Central News Agency cited Taiwan's Central Weather Bureau as saying there were thunderstorms in the area at the time of the crash.
Lu said TransAsia suspected typhoon weather caused the crash, but was waiting for aviation authorities to finish an investigation to say for sure.
The plane showed no defects and had ample visibility to land safely, Civil Aeronautics Administration spokesman Lee Wan-lee said.
The airline said family members had taken a charter flight on Thursday morning to Magong airport, near where the crash happened. They would then be taken to a morgue to identify victims.
"All the bodies have been dug out," said Chen Tung-yi, a section chief with the Penghu disaster response center. "We're cleaning up the site now and also doing appraisals of the situation and trying to identify victims."
The plane crashed into eight houses, including some built from coral harvested off the coast, Chen said.
Local television footage showed disaster crews Thursday picking through the remains of the cabin, demolished houses and a car that was smashed by the plane.
President Ma Ying-jeou called the crash "a very sad day in the history of Taiwanese aviation," according to a spokesman for his office, Ma Wei-kuo, the Central News Agency reported. The agency said the plane's captain had 22 years of flying experience and the co-pilot had 2-1/2 years. The airline was offering the family of each victim about $6,600 and paying another $27,000 for funeral expenses, the agency reported.
The plane came down in the village of Xixi outside the airport. Television stations showed rescue workers pulling bodies from the wreckage. Photos in local media showed firefighters using flashlights to look through the wreckage and buildings damaged by debris.
Penghu residents said they heard thunder and then what sounded like an explosion, the news agency said.
"I heard a loud bang," a local resident was quoted as saying by television station TVBS. "I thought it was thunder, and then I heard another bang and I saw a fireball not far away from my house."
The head of Taiwan's Civil Aeronautics Administration, Jean Shen, said the plane lost contact with the tower after saying it would make a second landing attempt. Visibility as the plane approached was 1,600 meters (one mile), which met standards for landing, and two flights had landed shortly before GE222, the aviation agency reported. Shen said the plane was 14 years old.
The Central News Agency, citing the county fire department, said it appeared heavy rain reduced visibility and the pilot was forced to pull up and attempt a second landing.
The Central Weather Bureau had warned of heavy rain Wednesday evening, even after the center of the storm had moved west to mainland China.
In Taipei, TransAsia Airways' general manager, Hsu Yi-Tsung, bowed deeply before reporters and tearfully apologized for the accident, the news agency said.
"As TransAsia is responsible for this matter, we apologize. We apologize," Hsu said.
Taiwan's last major aviation disaster was also near Penghu. In 2002, a China Airlines Boeing 747 broke apart in midair and crashed into the Taiwan Strait, killing all 225 people aboard.
Associated Press writers Gillian Wong, Joe McDonald and Louise Watt in Beijing and Johnson Lai in Taipei contributed to this report.