Taiwanese officials defend letting TransAsia plane fly in wake of typhoon after 48 die in crash

Aircraft ploughs into village and bursts into flames on resort island of Penghu after pilot attempts to make an emergency landing

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 July, 2014, 9:12pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 July, 2014, 5:14pm

Taiwanese officials on Thursday defended flight clearance given to a plane which crashed while trying to land during stormy weather, killing 48 people.

Flight GE222 was carrying 54 passengers and four crew members on a domestic flight when it crashed on Wednesday at Magong on the Penghu island chain, with 10 surviving the disaster.

Two French medical students were among the dead, the foreign ministry in Paris said.

Reports that one of the victims was from Hong Kong, circulated by Taiwanese media, were later denied by the Hong Kong Economic, Trade and Cultural Office in Taiwan.

The ATR 72-500 was flying from the southwestern city of Kaohsiung to the islands off the west coast and had been delayed by bad weather as Typhoon Matmo pounded Taiwan, according to authorities.

It was trying to land for a second time after aborting the first attempt  during thunder and heavy rain, crashing into two houses near Magong airport and  injuring five people on the ground, officials said.

Questions have been raised about why the flight was allowed to go ahead so soon after the typhoon.

“Many people were questioning why the plane took off in typhoon weather ...  according to my understanding the meteorology data showed that it met the aviation safety requirements,” transport minister Yeh Kuang-shih said.

Jean Shen, director of Taiwan's Civil Aeronautics Administration said it was safe to fly.

"There were nine flights on the same route between 2pm and 7 pm yesterday. Only the TransAsia flight crashed," Shen said. 

"The weather reports showed it was totally OK for landing. We can not say for sure what went wrong at this point. The flight safety committee has opened an investigation ... they will complete an official report within a year."

Shen said authorities were not ruling anything out. Both black boxes had been found and officials would begin examining them on Thursday, she said.

READ: Survivor of Taiwan crash 'pulled herself from wreckage and ran to ring her father'

On Thursday, the scattered remains of the plane could be seen as more than 100 rescuers - including firefighters and soldiers - worked to remove bodies and debris from the scene.

The crash came hours after Matmo passed over Taiwan. About 200 airline flights at Taiwanese airports had been cancelled earlier in the day due to rain and high winds. Taiwan’s Central Weather Bureau had warned of heavy rains into Wednesday evening even after Matmo moved west into the mainland.

“According to what we can understand so far, this was due to weather, the influence of the typhoon,” a TransAsia representative, Phoebe Lu, said. She said the carrier was waiting for Taiwanese authorities to complete an investigation to get confirmation.

Watch: Investigation underway after 48 killed in Taiwan plane crash

Local media reported that some victims had been found underneath the plane, said to have shattered into three pieces, and seven of the 10 injured survivors had managed to claw through the wreckage.

Jean Shen, director general of the Civil Aeronautics Administration, said: "Flight GE222 was scheduled to take off from Siaogang Airport in Kaohsiung to Magong in Penghu at 4pm, but because of the [storm] it left Siaogang at 5.43pm.

"The [Magong airport] tower received a request for the plane to make a go-around at 7.06pm but lost contact with the flight from the radar."

She said that although there was a report of a thunderstorm, the plane was allowed to fly after weather and visibility clearance. It crashed in the village of Xixi, 1km from the runway. There were no reports of casualties on the ground.

TransAsia said it planned to compensate each family of the deceased with Tw$1 million (HK$258,300), and offer Tw$200,000 to each of the injured.

Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou ordered immediate assistance for the victims' families and a thorough investigation. The airline apologised to victims' relatives and vowed to do all it could to help them.

"Today is a very sad day in the history of Taiwan aviation," Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou said in a statement.

"All of Taiwan is grieving."

China's President, Xi Jinping, who is on a Latin America tour, felt "deeply grieved" after learning the tragedy has caused heavy casualties, the mainland’s State Council Taiwan Affairs Office, said in a statement, according to Xinhua.

The plane had been awaiting permission to fly due to heavy rains on and off yesterday.

Witnesses said the plane burst into flames after coming down.

A Xixi resident said he heard a loud bang and saw flames three-storeys-high pouring from the plane. "It happened about 150 metres in front of my house," he said. "The plane crashed into a house, but luckily no one was inside."

Guesthouse owner Liu Chun-yao said: "It was raining very hard outside the whole afternoon. There was thunder and lightening, too, and very strong winds."

Hong Kong Travel Industry Council executive director Joseph Tung Yao-chung said Penghu was not a popular destination for Hongkongers. He had no information about the number of tourists there.

Taiwan has had a poor record for aviation safety over the last two decades, though it has improved recently after the government tightened up safety measures.

TransAsia had been involved in eight "incidents" since 2002, including this latest one and an earlier fatal accident, according to data on the website of the Aviation Safety Council.

The other fatal accident was in 2002 when a cargo plane carrying two pilots crashed into the sea. The pilots did not respond appropriately to ice accumulated on the wing surface, it said.

TransAsia and bigger rivals, China Airlines and Eva Airways, have been facing pressure from higher energy prices and increasingly popular budget airlines.

TransAsia Airways is a Taiwan-based airline with a fleet of around 23 Airbus and ATR aircraft, operating chiefly short-haul flights on domestic routes as well as to the mainland, Japan, Thailand and Cambodia, among its Asian destinations.

Additional reporting by Nectar Gan, Danny Mok, Agence-France-Presse, Associated Press, Reuters