Taiwanese plane wreckage pulled from river

Disaster | A TransAsia prop-jet plane clipped a freeway overpass and plunged into a river shortly after takeoff
by Angela Lu Fulton
Posted 2/04/15, 08:20 am

UPDATE: Taiwanese officials used a crane to lift the wreckage of TransAsia Flight GE235 out of the Keelung River as night fell over Taipei. The death toll has risen to 25, with 18 people still missing. The plane had 58 on board.

Taiwanese broadcasters have been playing audio of the plane's final contact with air traffic controllers, in which the pilot calls out "Mayday!" three times. Media reports speculated the pilot might have made the sharp turn that sent the plane toward the river to avoid hitting nearby residential high-rise towers. But officials say they have no evidence of that. Recovery teams have the aircraft's black box, which should shed light on what happened.

OUR EARLIER REPORT (8:20 a.m. EST): TAIPEI, Taiwan—A plane carrying 58 passengers clipped an elevated expressway and crashed into a river shortly after takeoff Wednesday. Taiwanese media are reporting officials say the crash killed at least 23 people, while 20 remain missing.

The TransAsia flight took off from Songshan Airport in Taiwan’s capital at 10:52 a.m., heading to the Taiwan-controlled Kinmen island. Thirty-one passengers were from China, according to Taiwan’s tourism bureau. Kinmen’s airport is a connecting point between Taipei and China’s Fujian province. Air traffic controllers lost contact with the ATR 72 prop-jet plane two minutes after take off, and images from the dashboard cameras of cars driving by show the plane flying sideways and scraping Taiwan’s National Freeway No. 1. The plane hit a taxi cab and damaged the railing before plunging into the Keelung River.

Under a thick blanket of clouds, crowds gathered along the river, peering at the semi-submerged fuselage. Life boats carrying rescue crews bobbed around the plane, as men in bright red and orange life vests cut away at the metal walls to search for survivors. Downstream, part of the wing drifted aimlessly, as more rescue crews scanned the choppy water for bodies.

As the search dragged into the afternoon, members of the Buddhist charitable foundation, Tzu Chi, brought a large steaming pot of soup and rice noodles for the rescue workers shivering in wetsuits. Curious local residents stood by shaking their heads, wondering aloud if anyone could still be rescued from the wreckage. Huang Zheng-nan, a former aircraft technician in his 70s, pointed up at the nicked expressway in front of a row of high-rise buildings.

“It’s a good thing the plane only hit the highway,” Huang said. “If it had fallen sooner, it could have hit a building and no one would have made it out alive.”

Taipei Fire Department official Wu Jun-hong told reporters the missing passengers were either still stuck in the fuselage or had drifted downstream. 

“At the moment, things don’t look too optimistic,” Wu said. “Those in the front of the plane are likely to have lost their lives.” To rescue the remaining passengers, Wu mentioned the possibility of employing heavy cranes to lift the fuselage out of the water.

Officials do not yet know what caused the crash, but the black box has been recovered. Lin Chih-ming of the Civil Aeronautics Administration said the ATR 72-600 was ATR’s best model plane, and the pilot had 4,900 hours of flying experience.

In a public statement, TransAsia CEO Chen Xinde offered “deep apology” to the passengers and crew on the flight. The airline likely will face greater scrutiny: Wednesday’s crash is its second in the past year. In July, another ATR 72 crashed in the Taiwan-controlled island of Penghu, killing 48. The reasons for that crash are still under investigation. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

Angela Lu Fulton

Angela is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine and a part-time editor for WORLD Digital. She is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Angela resides in Taipei, Taiwan. Follow her on Twitter @angela818.

 

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