Taiwanese airliner plunges into strait with 225 aboard

Early rescue attempts fail to find survivors


TAIPEI, Taiwan - A Taiwanese airliner bound for Hong Kong with 225 people aboard disappeared from radar in clear weather and crashed into the sea yesterday afternoon between southern Taiwan and China. Rescue workers quickly reached the wreckage of the Boeing 747 and retrieved six bodies but found no survivors in the initial search.

China Airlines Flight 611 left Chiang Kai-shek International Airport in Taipei at 3:08 p.m. with mostly Taiwanese businessmen and tourists on board. Air traffic controllers lost radar contact with the plane at 3:33 p.m., Taiwanese authorities said.

The Aviation Safety Council, Taiwan's air safety regulator, said rescuers began finding bodies and wreckage in the water less than three hours later about 10 miles north of Makung, the county seat of the Penghu Islands near the southern end of the Taiwan Strait. That would put the crash site within Taiwanese waters.

Chang Chia-ju, Taiwan's deputy minister of transportation and communications, declined at a news conference to speculate on what might have gone wrong. He did say that the pilots had sent no distress call, but he would not discuss what that might mean.

"The weather was fine, the visibility was good and there was no air turbulence," Chang said.

Wei Shin-hsung, president of China Airlines, said yesterday evening, "Mechanical failure is highly unlikely." If something had gone wrong with the plane, he said, the pilots would probably have had enough time to make a distress call.

There was no suggestion from a Taiwan official of involvement by mainland China in the crash, nor did Taiwanese news agencies report any signs of unusual military mobilization afterward.

Taiwanese news reports said two Cathay Pacific planes flying near the crash site had received automatic distress signals of the kind commonly activated when a plane is submerged in water.

The Aviation Safety Council said yesterday evening that it had contacted the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board as well as Boeing and Pratt & Whitney, which made the engines. All three promised to send investigators, who are expected to arrive tomorrow, the council said.

Civilian and military rescuers plan to begin a search this morning; the plane crashed in about 80 feet of water.

The crash is the latest in a long series for China Airlines, a privately held company that is Taiwan's largest air carrier and has one of the worst safety records in commercial aviation. Yesterday's was the airline's ninth fatal crash since 1970, according to Airsafe.com, an Internet site specializing in aviation safety. One of the previous crashes also occurred near the Penghu Islands, in 1971, and was attributed to a bomb on board.

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