TAIPEI - At least 23 people were killed Wednesday when a passenger plane operated by TransAsia Airways clipped an overpass soon after take-off and plunged into a river in Taiwan, the airline's second crash in seven months.
Rescue officials said 15 survivors had been pulled out of the wreckage after the turboprop plane crashed with 58 people on board, but 20 were still missing. Many of the passengers were mainland Chinese tourists.
Cold weather, poor visibility and rising water levels were hampering the rescue, officials said, admitting they were now "not optimistic" about finding survivors.
Desperate crew shouted "Mayday! Mayday! Engine flameout!" according to a recording thought to be the final message from the cockpit to the control tower played on local television.
Aviation officials said they had not released the cockpit recording, suggesting it may have come from amateurs monitoring the radio.
Dramatic amateur video footage showed the TransAsia ATR 72-600 hit an elevated road as it banked sidelong towards the Keelung River, leaving a trail of debris including a smashed taxi.
"I saw a taxi, probably just metres ahead of me, being hit by one wing of the plane. The plane was huge and really close to me. I'm still trembling," one witness told TVBS news channel.
An AFP reporter at the scene said he had seen bodies being pulled from the wreckage into the early evening.
"An engine flameout refers to the engine shutting down in flight," said Daniel Tsang, founder of Hong Kong-based aviation consultancy Aspire Aviation.
"The engine stops producing thrust and the combustion process fails and no longer generates any forward propulsion to the aeroplane." But Tsang told AFP pilots were "very well trained" to deal with the failure of one engine and the causes of the crash were likely to be more complex.
It was the second fatal crash involving a TransAsia Airways plane within a few months. A flight operated by the domestic airline crashed in July during a storm, killing 48 people.
'Racing against time'
Wednesday's accident happened just before 11am (0300 GMT, 11am Singapore time), shortly after Flight GE235 left Songshan airport in northern Taipei en route to the island of Kinmen with 53 passengers and five crew on board.
Six airline officials including chief executive Peter Chen bowed in apology at a televised press conference.
"We would like to convey our apologies to the families (of the victims) and we'd also like to voice huge thanks to rescuers who have been racing against time," said Chen.
Lin Kuan-cheng from the National Fire Agency later said that 14 people were dead and nine showed "no signs of life" - the term used before death is officially confirmed.
"As it has been a while and the weather is cold, things are not optimistic, but rescuers will do everything to find and rescue the remaining missing people," Lin added.
Those missing are thought to be trapped inside the submerged front section of the plane.
A crane is being brought in to lift the wreckage.
"Rising water levels and poor visibility underwater has made the work very difficult," said senior rescue official Wu Chun-hung.
There has been no official comment on the cause of the crash, but the black boxes have been retrieved.
Several former pilots told local media that the plane's sideways flip while in the air could have been caused by the failure of one of the engines.