Loose bolt punched hole in plane's fuel tank: experts

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 August, 2007, 12:00am

Failure in wing flap component led to China Airlines blaze

Japanese investigators examining the wreckage of a China Airlines passenger plane yesterday found a hole in the aircraft's fuel tank that could have been the cause of the explosion of the Boeing 737-800 at Naha Airport in Okinawa on Monday.

The hole, measuring 20-30mm in diameter, was apparently caused by a bolt from the right wing piercing the fuel tank, resulting in the massive leak that Taiwanese and Japanese media said was like a waterfall.

All 165 people on the plane managed to escape seconds before it burst into flames and broke into three sections.

Aviation experts from Japan, Taiwan and US had suspected the leak was caused by a cracked pipe connecting the engine to the wing.

But the latest finding by Japan's Aircraft and Railway Accidents Investigation Commission is that a bolt installed on a unit to move a flap on the front edge of the plane's right wing came loose and pierced the tank.

The flap creates lift beneath the wing when the plane lands, aviation experts said.

Yang Hung-chih, executive-director of Taiwan's Aviation Safety Council, confirmed the finding last night in Taipei.

'The investigation team in Japan is still trying to find out what caused the bolt to come loose,' Mr Yang said.

He said Boeing had issued a worldwide alert to its clients in March last year that there were two similar cases of bolts coming off, but it did not ask for a mandatory change of the bolts. He said China Airlines aircraft underwent checks and maintenance after receiving the alert.

China Airlines spokesman Johnson Sun Hung-wen said the airline had followed every proper procedure in making the required checks and maintenance of its fleet.

Mr Sun said airline chairman Philip Wei Hsin-hsiung had verbally offered to resign to take responsibility for the accident.

'But we have no further details of his resignation offer since he is still in Central America,' Mr Sun said. Mr Wei is accompanying Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian on a visit to Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua, three of the island's 24 allies.

The Taiwanese government-funded Central News Agency quoted Mr Wei as saying in Honduras that he offered a verbal resignation to Transport Minister Tsai Duei immediately after the incident, but he later decided to continue his trip with Mr Chen after learning all passengers had escaped unharmed.

Dr Tsai said no decision about the resignation would be made until after Mr Wei returned to Taiwan on Wednesday.

China Airlines apologised again for the accident yesterday and offered to pay NT$80,000 (HK$18,940) in compensation to each business-class passenger and NT$65,000 to each economy-class passenger. There were 157 passengers on board the aircraft, 119 from Taiwan.

'This is on top of the US$100 cash gift and 25,000 yen (HK$1,700) we have given to each passenger to show our sincerity to them,' Mr Sun said.

The passengers, all tourists on a sightseeing trip to Okinawa, including eight from Hong Kong, returned to Taiwan yesterday with some criticising the flight crew for acting 'too slowly' in response to the incident.

'The wings were already on fire, and they were still doing nothing,' one female passenger said.

Other passengers complained the airline did not give them enough cash compensation, forcing them to wear the same clothes all through the trip.

But all were thankful for their narrow escape.

One female passenger fainted as soon as she stepped off a China Airlines Airbus that brought them home. A relative said the woman had been unable to sleep the night before and was worried during the flight back.