Desperate crew shouted “Mayday! Mayday! Engine flameout!” according to a recording thought to be the final message from the cockpit to the control tower played on local television. A “flameout” is when the flame that normally burns in the engine goes out, causing engine failure. Twin-engined planes are usually able to fly on one engine. Aviation officials said they had not released the cockpit recording, suggesting that it may have come from amateurs monitoring the radio.
Dramatic amateur video footage showed the TransAsia ATR 72-600 turboprop plane hit the road bridge as it banked side-long 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 channel.
Rescue officials said that 15 survivors had been pulled out of the wreckage, but that 22 people were believed dead and 21 were still missing. Many of those on board were Chinese tourists.
A TransAsia statement released later in the evening confirmed the death toll currently stood at 23, with 15 injured and 20 still missing. It also said it would be complying with authorities request that the airline conducts checks on all its ATR planes before take-off.
It was the second serious incident involving a TransAsia Airways plane in a few months after another flight operated by the domestic airline crashed in July during a storm, killing 48 people.
RACING AGAINST TIME
Wednesday’s accident happened just before 11:00am (0300 GMT), shortly after Flight GE235 left Songshan airport in northern Taipei en route to the island of Kinmen, with 58 people on board including five crew members.
Six airline officials including chief executive Peter Chen bowed in apology at a televised press conference. “We would like to convey our apologies to the families (of the victims) and we’d also like to voice huge thanks to rescuers who have been racing against time,” said Chen.
Rescue personnel in a rubber dinghy lift a passenger (C) from the waters around the wreckage of a TransAsia plane that crash-landed into the Keelung river outside Taiwan’s capital Taipei. (Photo: AFP/Sam Yeh)
“TransAsia Airways will do its utmost to help our passengers, the injured, as well as the families of the passengers on board. We will deploy all our resources to help in the rescue efforts as well as in the aftermath of this incident,” said Chen, confirming that 13 people had been killed.
Lin Kuan-cheng from the National Fire Agency later said that 13 people were dead and nine showing “no signs of life” – the term used before death is officially confirmed. Those missing are thought to be trapped inside the submerged front section of the plane.
“The focus of our work is to try to use cranes to lift the front part of the wreckage, which is submerged under the water and is where most of the other passengers are feared trapped,” a senior rescue official told reporters at the scene.
He later said that the black boxes from the plane had been recovered – there is no official indication yet of what caused the crash.
The black boxes recovered from the TransAsia Airways plane that clipped a road bridge and plunged into a river in Taiwan. (Photo: Apple Daily)
As time ticked away for those inside the fuselage, rescue boats surrounded the wreckage which remains in the middle of the river, with 400 soldiers drafted in to help. Emergency crews standing on sections of the broken fuselage tried to pull passengers out of the plane with ropes. Those who were rescued were put in dinghies and taken to the shore.
With evening approaching, lighting equipment would be brought in and a floating bridge put up to help the operation, officials said.
An injured passenger (C) is helped onto land by emergency personnel along the river bank after a TransAsia ATR 72-600 turboprop plane crash-landed into the Keelung river outside Taiwan’s capital Taipei on Feb 4, 2015. (Photo: AFP/Sam Yeh)
China’s Xiamen Daily said on its social media account that the 31 mainlanders on board were part of two tour groups from the eastern Chinese city. Xiamen is in Fujian province, which lies across the Taiwan Strait from the island.
An employee of one of the tour agencies, surnamed Wen, told AFP that it had 15 clients on board, including three children under 10, and a tour leader. “It’s an emergency,” she said. “We’re working with different work teams. We’re trying to arrange for the relatives to go to Taiwan.” TransAsia’s Chen said that of the 31 passengers from the mainland, three were children.
Aviation officials said the plane crashed minutes after taking off Songshan airport, after losing contact with the control tower. Lin Chih-ming, head of Taiwan’s Civil Aeronautics Administration, said the ATR 72-600 was less than a year old and was last serviced just over a week ago.
The pilot had 14,000 flying hours and the co-pilot 4,000 hours, Lin said. The airline said they had received the plane in April last year and it was the newest model of the ATR.
In last July’s crash, the 48 people were killed when another domestic TransAsia flight crashed onto houses during a storm on the Taiwanese island of Penghu. The ATR 72-500 turboprop plane deviated off course before plunging into the houses after an aborted landing during thunder and heavy rain as Typhoon Matmo pounded Taiwan at the time.
Footage taken from TVBS shows the plane hitting a vehicle while passing close to a highway. Unverified images from a Twitter user in Taiwan have shown images of the plane flying close to a highway and going almost sideways before it hit the river.