Plane hits highway, ends up in river

AFTERMATH: Rescuers pull a passenger out of the plane. It had been carrying 58 people, including five crew members. At least 20 people are still missing.

TAIPEI - At least 23 people were killed yesterday when a TransAsia Airways plane clipped an elevated highway and cartwheeled into a river in Taiwan, in the airline's second crash in just seven months.

Dramatic amateur video footage showed the TransAsia ATR 72-600 turboprop plane lurch between buildings and hit the road bridge, as it banked sidelong towards the water, 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.

An eyewitness on the ground was cited as saying the aircraft was flying "almost 90 degrees on its side" and going increasingly lower, until it hit the highway bridge and crashed into the river.

The crash happened only two minutes after Flight GE235 took off from Songshan Airport in Taipei en route to the island of Kinmen at 10.52am, and was suspected to be due to insufficient propelling force, according to United Daily News.

According to AFP, the pilot made a "Mayday! Mayday! Engine flameout!" distress call at 10.54am, but did not respond when air traffic controllers answered.

The plane was powered by two Pratt & Whitney PW127M engines. A flameout occurs when the fuel supply to the engine is interrupted or when there is faulty combustion, resulting in engine failure. Twin-engined aircraft, however, are usually able to keep flying even when one engine has failed.

The jet was carrying 58 people, including five crew members. At least 20 people are still missing and 15 survivors have been rescued. Thirty-one passengers, including three children, were tourists from Xiamen, China.

The Singapore Trade Office in Taipei has confirmed that there were no Singaporeans on board.

In a statement issued by TransAsia yesterday afternoon, the airline said four children were among those injured and receiving treatment at hospitals.

The statement added that the damaged plane was delivered to TransAsia just last April.

Lin Tyh-ming of Taiwan's civil aviation authority said the aircraft was last serviced only a week ago. The pilot had 4,916 hours of flying hours under his belt and the co-pilot had 6,922 hours, he said.

Television footage showed survivors wearing life jackets, and wading and swimming clear of wreckage. Others, including a young child, were taken to shore by rescuers.

Emergency rescue officials in inflatable boats crowded around the partially submerged fuselage of the plane, lying on its side in the river, trying to help those on board.

The weather appeared to be clear when the plane took off. TV footage also showed some damage to a bridge next to the river, with small pieces of the aircraft scattered along the road.

The taxi driver and his passenger were slightly hurt in the crash and have been hospitalised for observation, according to Central News Agency.

Wang Hsing-chung, an Aviation Safety Council spokesman, said the plane's black boxes have been recovered and investigators would begin reading the data.

TransAsia's chief executive, Peter Chen Hsin-te, bowed deeply at a televised news conference yesterday afternoon as he apologised to passengers and crew members.

It was the second serious incident involving a TransAsia plane in months, after another flight operated by the domestic airline - Taiwan's third-largest carrier - crashed in July on Penghu Island during a storm, killing 48 people.

This article by The Straits Times was published in MyPaper, a free, bilingual newspaper published by Singapore Press Holdings.