Taiwan official confirms pilot’s ‘mayday’ call authentic as air crash death toll rises

The search has continued today for 12 missing people from the TransAsia Airway flight that clipped a bridge soon after take-off and crashed into a river in Taipei yesterday, killing at least 31 people.

An aviation official also confirmed today the authenticity of a recording of one of the pilots of the stricken aircraft saying "mayday, mayday, engine flameout" moments before it banked sharply and crashed.

The aircraft - carrying 53 passengers, including four children, and five crew members - was seen to lurch between buildings, then clip the bridge with one of its wings before crashing upside down in the shallow river at about 10.55am yesterday, shortly after taking off from Taipei's Songshan International Airport.

Taiwanese rescue officials have refused to give up hope of finding those people who are still missing.

"We have not found survivors or bodies of the 12 missing people, but we will not give up; we'll continue to search," Yeh Chun-hsing, an official with Taipei's fire department, told reporters.

The official at Taiwan's Civil Aeronautical Administration, who declined to be named, confirmed that the widely broadcast audio clip of the distress call, made during exchanges between the control tower of Taipei's Songshan International Airport and the pilot of doomed TransAsia Flight GE235, was genuine.

However, the official but did not say how it might relate to the cause of the crash.

A transcript of excerpts of that exchange reads:

Control tower: "(inaudible) ... wind 100 degrees, 9.9 knots. Clear to take off"

Pilot: "Clear to take off, runway 10, TransAsia 235"

Pilot: "(inaudible) ... mayday, mayday, engine flameout"

Control tower: "TransAsia 235, please try again. Contact Taipei, approach on 119.7"

Control tower: "TransAsia 235. Control tower ... TransAsia 235. Control tower"

Video images of the plane's final moments in the air captured on car dashboard cameras appear to show the left engine's propeller at standstill as the aircraft turned sharply over Taipei, with its wings going vertical and clipping a highway bridge before plunging into the Keelung River yesterday.

Engine flameout refers to flames being extinguished in the combustion chamber of the engine, so that it shuts down and no longer drives the propeller.

Causes of a flameout could include a lack of fuel or being struck by a bird, volcanic ash or some other object. "Mayday" is an international emergency call.

Taiwan's aviation regulator has also ordered operators of all 22 turboprop ATR planes on the island to carry out "special checks" on their aircraft.

The checks would focus on the engines, fuel control system, propeller systems, and spark plugs and ignition connectors in the turboprop aircraft, it said in a statement.

However, it has not ordered the grounding of the aircraft, despite yesterday's accident being the second fatal crash involving a TransAsia plane in seven months.

Both of the aircraft's engines were recovered from the crash site this afternoon and taken to shore for examination by air accident investigators, Taiwan's Central News Agency reported.

Taipei's mayor hailed the dead pilot a hero today after the aircraft narrowly avoided hitting buildings before crashing in a river.

"He really tried everything he could," Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je said, his voice breaking into sobs.

This afternoon, heartbroken relatives of some of the mainland passengers on board the ill-fated TransAir aircraft arrived in Taiwan.

The first group of 15 relatives, and 11 employees of a Xiamen-based travel agency, took a Mandarin Airlines flight to Taoyuan International Airport, the agency said.

Tang Ke, the fiancee of mainland tourist guide Wang Qinghuo, who died in the crash, was also among the first group to arrive in Taiwan, the Taiwanese newspaper United Daily News reported.

The couple had planned to marry on Sunday, mainland media reported yesterday.

Some relatives fought to hold back tears, as they said they hoped to get to the crash scene and the funeral parlour where the bodies of their loved ones had been taken as soon as possible.

Many were openly weeping on their way from the airport to the bus arranged by TransAir.

A second group of 17 relatives and six travel agency staff were expected to arrive in Taiwan at 6.45pm.

TransAsia Flight GE235 was on its third flight of the day at the time of the crash and there had been no records of any malfunction during the previous two flights, the CAA statement said.

Macau's Civil Aviation Authority said in a statement that the plane's engines had been replaced at Macau Airport on April 19 last year, during its delivery flight, "due to engine-related technical issues".

Taiwan's Ministry of Transportation and Communications said it had banned TransAsia Airlines from applying for new aviation rights for one year while it carried out an investigation into the crash.

About 60 divers have been searching the waters of Keelung River in New Taipei City, just outside the capital, Taipei, supported by at least 20 rescue boats.

Search teams found another body in the wreckage of ATR 72-600 propeller aircraft this morning, bringing the death toll to 31, the agency reported.

Fifteen other people were injured in the crash.

The agency reported that most survivors had been seated in the rear of the aircraft.

Those who survived the crash were pulled from the open door of a relatively undamaged section of the fuselage, which remained jutting above the river's surface after the crash.

Among the survivors was a family of three, including a two-year-old boy whose heart stopped beating after three minutes under water. The child, Lin Jih-yao, recovered after receiving CPR, his uncle, Lin Ming-yi, told reporters.

During the night the bodies of the aircraft's captain, Liao Chien-tsung, 42, and his two first officers - co-pilot Liu Tzu-chung and flight engineer Hung Ping-chung - were discovered in the Keelung River, the agency reported.

Police diver Cheng Ying-chih said the search and rescue efforts were being hampered by "zero visibility" in the turbid river and cold water temperatures that were forcing divers to work on one-hour shifts.

He said the front of the plane had broken into numerous pieces, making the job all the more difficult.

"We're looking at a very tough search and rescue job," Cheng told reporters gathered on the river bank, beside the wreckage where luggage had been removed and placed in neat rows.

The mangled rear part of the fuselage lay upside down, its wings and tail assembly sheared off and multiple holes torn into its side.

At midday today, about a dozen relatives of Taiwanese victims arrived at the riverbank to perform traditional mourning rituals.

Accompanied by Buddhist monks ringing brass bells, they bowed to the river and held aloft cloth inscriptions tied to pieces of bamboo meant to guide the spirits of the dead to rest.

This afternoon, Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou visited five injured passengers in hospital in Taipei.

The five included the driver and female passenger of a taxi on the bridge that was struck by the wing of the aircraft as it crashed.

The United Daily News quoted him saying that aviation authorities needed to carry out an in-depth review and anyone found to be to blame for the accident must be penalised.

Ma stayed at the hospital for about 30 minutes before leaving to go to a funeral parlour in Taipei, to pay his respects to victims of the crash.

Six of the 31 mainland passengers on board the flight were dead, Xinhua reported.

Three other mainland passengers were among the injured.

Many of the mainlanders were from the southeastern city of Xiamen on a six-day tour to Taiwan by way of Quemoy, a former defence outpost of Taiwan.

One mainland passenger with severe injuries was due to undergo surgery later today, an official at Taipei City Hospital said.

Last night, the wreckage of Flight GE235 was lifted from the river by a crane.

Three large pieces were retrieved, with the severely damaged main fuselage of the aircraft and tail brought ashore at about 8pm.

The nose section was lifted from the water on to the riverbank shortly after midnight.

The force of the crash was seen to have pushed the aircraft's cockpit area down into the cargo hold.

Another part of the aircraft still remains at the bottom of the river as rescuers continue to search the surface areas of the river for missing passengers.

Beijing will assist the investigation into the TransAsia air crash, the agency reported.

It is the first time a mainland agency will have participated in an air crash investigation in Taiwan.

An official at the Aviation Safety Council said that according to the Convention on International Civil Aviation, the state of passengers on board the aircraft was permitted to participate in the investigation.

Several representatives of the Xiamen Tourism Bureau arrived at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport at 10.25am today.

China National Tourism Administration sent a team, led by Liu Kezhi, head of the Department of Affairs on Tourism of Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan, to Taiwan today to assist the search efforts and also arrange for relatives of the mainland passengers to travel to the island.

Officials from Canada's Transportation Safety Board were also due to arrive in Taiwan this morning, while investigators from the BEA (Bureau d'Enquêtes et d'Analyses pour la securite de l'aviation civile) were expected to arrive there this afternoon.

The turboprop aircraft was made in France and the engine was made in Canada.

Today's search for 12 people on the aircraft who are still missing was briefly interrupted at about 1am because of low temperatures and poor visibility, the agency said.

Rescuers then resumed their efforts by searching the surface areas of the river.

Two rescue boats had begun the overnight search of the crash scene at about midnight.

The belongings of passengers were also placed on the riverbank beside the wreckage.

The airline will work with family members to identify passengers' luggage.

It was the second deadly crash in seven months for TransAsia, with the same plane model crashing into the offshore tourist island of Penghu in July, killing 48 people.

The latest crash has stirred up concerns over whether Songshan International Airport should be closed.

Taipei's original airport is located close to residential areas and its air safety level has long been a source of controversy.

It normally handles domestic routes within Taiwan and flights to China, South Korea and Japan, while Taipei's newer Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport deals with most of the flights abroad.

Only last year a Democratic Progressive Party legislator suggested closing the airport and changing the site into a park.

Following the crash, a legislator from the ruling Kuomintang Nationalist Party, has repeated this call and called on the government to act soon.

Lai Cheng-I, chairman of Taiwan's General Chamber of Commerce, said today that the newer airport was able to handle all of Taipei's air traffic and that the land used by Songshan International Airport could be put to better use.

Today Zhang Zhijun, head of the mainland's Taiwan affairs office, postponed his official visit to Quemoy - originally scheduled on February 7 and 8 - to express his condolences to survivors and relatives of the victims of the crash, the spokesperson of the office said.

Zhang had been due to meet his Taiwanese counterpart, Wang Yu-chi, in Quemoy.

Quemoy officials said they respected Zhang's decision.