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Archive for Saturday, May 25, 2002

China flight to Hong Kong crashes in the Taiwan Strait

May 25, 2002

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— An old China Airlines jetliner flying to Hong Kong with 225 people on board crashed Saturday in the Taiwan Strait, the airline and officials said. Six people were confirmed dead, and there were no immediate reports of survivors.

The Boeing 747-200 took off in clear weather from Taipei's international airport and was reported missing about 3:30 p.m., about 50 minutes after takeoff, Chang Chia-chu, a vice transportation minister, told reporters. The plane went down near the Penghu island group, about 30 miles off Taiwan's western coast, he said.

Chang Liang-shih, vice president of China Airlines, told reporters that one body from Flight CI611 was recovered and five others were spotted floating in the water.

There were suspicions that the plane might have exploded because farmers in the west coast county of Changhua _ near the plane's flight path _ were finding scraps of airline magazines and other papers with China Airlines stickers or labels on them. TVBS cable news showed officials wading into rice fields with flashlights collecting the bits of paper and putting them in plastic bags.

The 22-year-old jetliner was carrying 206 passengers and 19 crew, said Wang Cheng-yu, an official with China Airlines, Taiwan's biggest carrier. Most of the passengers were Taiwanese, but the passenger list also included two Singaporeans and five people from Hong Kong.

There was a large oil slick about 20 nautical miles northeast of Penghu, about 170 miles southwest of Taipei, Chang Chia-chu said.

Kay Yong, managing director of Taiwan's Aviation Safety Council, told reporters that the pilots sent no distress signals before the control tower reported the plane disappeared off radar screens.

The plane was flying at 35,000 feet when it went missing, Chang said.

The search and rescue effort was based at Penghu's main northern port, where eight ambulances were lined up waiting for victims. About 20 soldiers wearing surgical masks gathered with nurses at the port.

Penghu police officer Hsu Kuo-long said that early reports from rescuers said "several" bodies have been found, but he did not know how many.

"We're waiting for the bodies to come back," Kuo said.

China Airlines set up a crash center for victims' families at a hotel near Taipei's airport. About 50 people gathered there, sobbing, hugging each other and checking the airline's passenger list for names of friends and family.

At Hong Kong's Chek Lap Kok airport, officials issued an announcement for people waiting for friends and relatives on Flight CI611 to go to the China Airlines counter.

One man, who gave only his surname Chan, said he had arrived about 4 p.m. (0800 GMT) to pick up a friend, but he soon heard the bad news.

"I'm worried about my friend," Chan said. "I've heard from the radio that the plane has apparently crashed into the sea."

Chan said his friend was a Hong Kong man studying in Taiwan but he declined to provide the friend's name.

China Airlines said that the Boeing 747-200, built in 1979, was the last plane of its kind in the airline's fleet.

Due to a series of crashes in the 1990s, China Airlines used to be considered one of the world's most dangerous air carriers. But in recent years, the airline has reshuffled its board and has put a greater emphasis on safety.

David Fei, the general manager for China Airlines in Hong Kong, said, "We have already tried our best to improve our safety record. The safety record has already been our top priority."

The last fatal China Airlines accident was in 1999 when a jetliner flipped over and burst into flames during a crash landing in Hong Kong, killing three people.

According to the aviation safety Web site, Airsafe.com, China Airlines has had nine fatal accidents since 1970.

Bush and Putin spoke to reporters after viewing a coronation carriage used by Catherine the Great in the 18th century. The carriage is on display at the Hermitage.

Tensions between India and Pakistan flared last week after an attack at an army camp in Indian-controlled Kashmir that killed 34 people, mostly the wives and children of Indian soldiers. India blamed the assault on Islamic militants based in Pakistan.

In ensuing days, dozens have died in cross-border shelling in the divided province, over which India and Pakistan have fought two wars. Vajpayee sent letters to Bush, Putin and British Prime Minister Tony Blair saying the attacks have tested his country's patience.

Pakistan conducted the first in a series of missile tests Saturday. The medium-range Ghauri missile, fired at 9:30 a.m. at an undisclosed site, flew 900 miles _ far enough to reach deep into India. It can carry both a conventional and nuclear warhead.

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