Tourist Aircraft Crashes in Taiwan River, En Route to Frontier Islands

china-taiwan-air-crash2-feb4-2015.jpg Rescuers inspect the wreckage of a TransAsia Airlines aircraft pulled from the Keelung River in Taipei, Feb. 4, 2015.

Updated at 1:00 p.m. EST on 2015-02-04

A turboprop aircraft carrying dozens of tourists to disputed frontier islands in the Taiwan Strait crashed into the Keelung River in Taipei on Wednesday, killing 31 people and leaving 12 missing.

Video footage from the dashboard cameras of passing cars capture dramatic footage of the TransAsia flight GE235 cartwheeling past skyscrapers, its wing clipping a taxi on an aerial highway, before disappearing below in a haze of dust and smoke.

Fifteen survivors were pulled from the aircraft by rescue workers who clustered around the fuselage after it came to rest upside down in the river, with part of it visible above the water.

The pilot of the Pratt & Whitney ATR 72-600 was last heard calling "Mayday, Mayday! Engine flameout!" according to an air-traffic recording cited by Reuters, suggesting that engine failure triggered the crash.

Those aboard the taxi partly crushed by the aircraft's wing were receiving treatment in hospital, local media reports said.

Chien Shih-wei, Commander of Taiwan's 6th Army Corps, said the army had already sent in a team of troops and divers to help rescue those aboard.

"So far, we have committed more than 400 people to the rescue effort for the TransAsia air disaster," Chien said.

He said troops were busy constructing a floating platform to aid operations. "That'll enable us to get on with the rescue work more easily," he said.

CEO apologizes

Peter Chen, chief executive of the Taiwan-based TransAsia, made a public apology, bowing to journalists at a live news conference.

He said the aircraft was less than a year old, and had undergone maintenance on Jan. 26, however.

"I wish to offer my humblest apologies once more," Chen said. "TransAsia will do everything in its power to help the families of those who have died or been injured."

"We are mobilizing all our staff resources to help with the rescue effort and rehabilitation work," he said.

Taiwan's civil aviation authority said the aircraft had communicated with air traffic controls just two minutes after taking off from Songshan Airport in Taiwan's capital, Taipei.

Airport authority chief Lin Tyh-ming said the pilot had 4,916 hours of flying hours under his belt and the co-pilot had 6,922 hours.

Taiwan's Central News Agency reported that the pilot and two co-pilots were among the 31 people confirmed dead, while 12 others remained unaccounted for.

Air traffic controllers lost contact with the aircraft four minutes after takeoff, and the crash happened very soon after that, he said.

Officials said the "black box" flight recorders had already been recovered from the plane.

Kinmen Island

The plane was carrying 58 people, most of whom were from mainland China and Taiwan, to the outlying Taiwan-controlled island of Kinmen, which lies just two kilometers from the Chinese port of Xiamen, and which is also claimed by Beijing.

According to China's Taiwan Affairs Office, 31 of those on board were residents of Xiamen on a guided tour to a site that has become an iconic representation of the conflict between China's communists and the Kuomintang Nationalists (KMT), who fled to Taiwan after losing a civil war to Mao Zedong's forces in 1949.

In recent years, growing rapprochement between KMT President Ma Ying-jeou and Beijing officials has led to the opening up of direct flights and cross-straits tourism.

However, the student-led Sunflower Movement in March 2014 highlighted growing fears that Taiwan was getting too close to China and could make itself vulnerable to Beijing's interference in its democratic political system.

Wednesday's crash comes ahead of planned talks between Taiwan and mainland Chinese officials, which had been scheduled to take place on Kinmen Island on Saturday.

Wu Mei-hung, spokesperson for Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council, expressed "regret and condolences" to the victims' families.

Reported by Chung Kuang-cheng for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Hsia Hsiao-hwa for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.


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