38 bodies recovered from Mekong, 14 identified

Some 38 bodies of victims from the Lao Airlines crash have been retrieved from the Mekong River, which the ill-fated Flight QV301 plunged into last Wednesday.

Fourteen of the bodies have been identified, including the Cambodian captain and three crew members, six Laotian passengers, one Vietnamese, two Australians and a Chinese passenger, according to a statement by Lao Airlines vice president Saleum Tayarath released yesterday.

He said a special team from the airline was working with national and local authorities as well as investigators from the plane manufacturer in France and rescue workers from Thailand.

It remained unclear yesterday whether any of the five Thai passengers of the turbo-prop ATR-72 plane was among the bodies found.

The plane crash occurred near Pakse airport in the southern Laotian province of Champasak.

According to an updated passenger list from the airline, there were 16 Laotians, seven French travellers, six Australians, five Thais, three South Koreans, three Vietnamese, and one national each from the United States, Malaysia, China and Taiwan.

Laotian Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong thanked Thailand yesterday for helping with the search efforts when he met his Thai counterpart Yingluck Shinawatra in Nong Khai. Yingluck also promised "full support" to the ongoing mission to recover bodies of the crash victims and salvage the aircraft. Thai officials would also help Laos in identifying the bodies.

Yingluck said she expressed regret over the incident and that the Laotian leader thanked Thailand for its assistance.

The Thai and Lao leaders were in the northeastern province, which has a bridge connecting to the Laotian capital Vientiane, for a merit-making ceremony at Wat Pho Chai to mark the end of Buddhist Lent.

Jong-Pil Park, from South Korea's national forensic department, said the crash was a huge challenge for impoverished Laos, with damage to the bodies creating further hurdles in identification. "They need to analyse DNA samples, finger prints and dental [records]. They need to solve by cooperating with many countries," he said, adding that it could take up to two weeks to finish conducting the autopsies.

In an updated statement late yesterday, Lao Airlines said some of the bodies had been returned to their families, including the Cambodian pilot, whose body was flown back to Phnom Penh. Teams of French and Thai experts plied the muddy Mekong River with high-tech sonar equipment yesterday, ramping up the search for the remnants of the plane and more than a dozen bodies still missing from the crash.

By yesterday afternoon, 38 bodies have been found and authorities were still trying to identify many of them, said Yakua Lopangkao, director-general of Laos' Department of Civil Aviation.

"We have not been able to locate the plane yet, but the teams from France and Thailand have arrived," Yakua said.

"We have split them into several teams to do simultaneous searches at two or three spots. We believe that one of these spots is where we will find the black box."

A Canadian engineer who specialises in underwater robotics said the strong current in the Mekong could make it almost impossible to lift the plane off the bottom of the river and recover any bodies still inside the wreck. The engineer, who preferred not be named, said the strong current meant as many as six barges and cranes might be needed to lift the plane, if it could be found, and they may need to build a wall at the top end to deflect the fast moving current around the wreck.

The French and Thai teams set out on small boats yesterday to scan the water's surface with sonar equipment. Thai navy divers conducted underwater searches for the flight data and voice recorders.