TAIPEI - Taiwan rescuers scoured a river for 12 people still missing from a TransAsia plane crash Thursday as the pilot was hailed as a hero for apparently battling to avoid hitting built-up areas shortly after issuing a "mayday" call.
Hundreds of rescuers in boats, as well as divers and soldiers mounted the search in the chilly waters, as the death toll rose to 31 with more bodies located including those of the pilot and co-pilot, authorities said.
The TransAsia ATR 72-600 crashed shortly after take-off from Songshan airport in northern Taipei Wednesday, hitting an elevated road as it banked sidelong towards the Keelung River, leaving a trail of debris including a smashed taxi.
The pilot was applauded by aviation experts for apparently steering the plane away from populated areas and high-rise buildings to avoid causing more damage with the aircraft which had 53 passengers and five crew on board.
"Based on the flight path, the pilot deviated and tried to avoid obstacles. The pilot apparently made a conscious effort to avoid further and unnecessary casualties by ditching in the river. It was a very courageous move," Hong Kong-based aviation analyst Daniel Tsang told AFP.
Emotional citizens posted their praise and condolences on social media sites.
"I believe the pilot managed to steer the plane away from high-rise buildings, he is a hero," Gin Oy, a writer and actress, said on her Facebook page.
Tales of miracle escapes emerged, as television footage showed a father cuddling his toddler son as they were taken to shore by boat after being rescued Wednesday.
Together with the child's mother, the family had switched seats on the plane "out of a hunch" that saved their lives, the United Daily News said.
"The family originally sat in the heavily damaged left side but Lin Ming-wei felt uneasy after he heard noises before taking-off and requested to switch seats," the report quoted Dai Bi-chin, a friend of the family, as saying after visiting them in hospital.
Their new seats put them next to a crack in the plane after it crashed, and the newspaper said Lin was able to pull his wife to safety and then revive his son after spotting him in the water, blue and unresponsive.
The Civil Aeronautics Administration has grounded a total of 22 ATR planes from two Taiwanese airlines for safety checks after the accident on a domestic route to the island of Kinmen - the second fatal crash for TransAsia after 48 people were killed in July.
"This morning we have some 60 divers going underwater to search" in addition to 20 boats scouring the river, said Liu Yung-chou, an official from the national fire agency which is coordinating the rescue operation.
Desperate crew shouted "Mayday! Mayday! Engine flameout!" as the plane plunged out of the sky, according to a recording thought to be the final message from the cockpit to the control tower played on local television.