China Airlines flight to Hong Kong crashes with 225 aboard

Sunday, May 26, 2002

PENGHU, Taiwan -- A Boeing 747-200 that China Airlines planned to retire next month crashed Saturday in the Taiwan Strait as it was flying 225 people to Hong Kong. No survivors were immediately found, and the airline said about 100 bodies were spotted floating in the choppy waters.

The pilots of Flight CI611 sent no distress signals before the plane dropped off radar screens about 20 minutes after taking off in clear weather at Taipei's international airport, said James L.S. Chang, a China Airlines vice president.

"Communications had been normal," Chang said. "The light spot suddenly disappeared from radar."

The jetliner went down about 20 nautical miles northeast of the Penghu island chain, about 170 miles southwest of Taipei, said Chang Chia-chu, a vice transportation minister. Penghu, also known as the Pescadores, is about 30 miles off Taiwan's western coast.

Losing the plane is a serious blow for China Airlines, which is trying to shed a reputation for being one of the world's most dangerous airlines. In the past five years, Taiwan's largest carrier has been aggressively retraining pilots and revamping its safety procedures.

There were early suspicions that the plane might have exploded in flight because farmers in the west coast county of Changhua -- near the plane's flight path -- were finding scraps of airline magazines, immigration forms and other papers with China Airlines stickers or labels on them. TVBS cable news showed officials wading into rice fields with flashlights collecting the bits of paper and putting them in plastic bags.

No explosion evidence

But China Airlines executive Chang said that so far there was no hard evidence of an in-flight explosion. "We need to find witnesses. We received no signs showing it," he said.

Seven bodies were recovered and about 100 others were spotted floating, he said.

The jetliner was carrying 206 passengers and 19 crew, said Wang Cheng-yu, an official with China Airlines. Most of the passengers were Taiwanese, but the passenger list also included one Singaporean, five people from Hong Kong, nine from China and a Swiss citizen.

The plane was flying at 35,000 feet when it went missing, said Chang Chia-chu, a vice transportation minister.

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