TAIPEI - At least 25 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.
As the rescue operation continued into the night, a crane lifted the rear and central sections of the plane from the water, with one body retrieved from inside.
The front part, where 17 people are believed to be trapped, was still in the water.
TransAsia said 16 survivors had been pulled out of the wreckage after the turboprop plane crashed with 58 people onboard. 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.
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 saw bodies being pulled from the wreckage into the early evening.
Desperate crew members 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.
Aviation officials said they had not released the cockpit recording, suggesting it may have come from amateurs monitoring the radio.
"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 that pilots were "very well trained" to deal with the failure of one engine and the causes of the accident 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.
Wednesday's accident happened just before 11:00 am (0300 GMT), 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.
In a statement later Wednesday, the airline said that 25 were confirmed dead, with 16 survivors.
Those missing are thought to be trapped inside the submerged front section of the plane.
"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," said Lin Kuan-cheng from the National Fire Agency.
"Rising water levels and poor visibility underwater has made the work very difficult," added 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 from the French-made aircraft.
France's civil aviation body said Wednesday two of its investigators and four from plane manufacturer ATR were being dispatched to assist Taiwanese authorities with their enquiries.
Rescue boats remained in the water late Wednesday, where the remaining front section of the plane is completely submerged.
Rescuers with flashlights scoured through the rear and central parts of the plane after they were brought to shore by crane.
Earlier in the day survivors had been ferried to safety in dinghies as rescuers tried to pull people out with ropes.
China's Xiamen Daily said on its social media account that the 31 mainlanders on board were part of two tour groups from the eastern Chinese city.
One tour guide now confirmed dead, named as Wang Qinghuo, had been due to marry on Sunday, it added.
Xiamen is in Fujian province, across the Taiwan Strait from the island.
An employee of one of the tour agencies, surnamed Wen, told AFP that it had 15 clients onboard, including three children under 10.
The rest of the passengers and crew were Taiwanese, according to the airline.
Aviation officials said the plane crashed minutes after taking off from Songshan airport, after losing contact with the control tower.
Lin Chih-ming, head of Taiwan's Civil Aeronautics Administration, said the ATR 72-600 was less than a year old and was last serviced just over a week ago. The pilot had 14,000 flying hours and the co-pilot 4,000 hours, he added.
The airline said it had received the plane in April last year and it was the newest model of the ATR.
In last July's crash, the 48 people were killed when another domestic TransAsia flight crashed onto houses during a storm on the Taiwanese island of Penghu.