BEIJING – Ten people survived a crash landing Wednesday that killed 48 other passengers as their plane failed to reach the runway on a Taiwanese holiday island hit hard by a typhoon. The airline, TransAsia Airways, confirmed the death toll Thursday morning.
TransAsia sent a first flight of relatives to visit the crash site early Thursday in Penghu island, a popular tourist archipelago in the Taiwan Strait that separates self-ruled Taiwan from mainland China.
Taiwan's Minister of Transportation Yeh Kuang-shih and aviation officials also flew to Penghu to begin a formal investigation into the disaster, Taiwan's worst air traffic incident in 12 years, said CNA, Taiwan's state news agency.
The 58 people on board included four crew members and two French nationals. About half of the passengers were residents of Penghu, reported Taiwan's Now News website.
The plane, operated by TransAsia, a local airline headquartered in the capital Taipei, was a twin engine turboprop ATR-72 from Kaohsiung, a major city in southwest Taiwan, to Magong, Penghu's only city.
Flight GE222 took off at 5.45pm, almost two hours late, from Kaohsiung, delayed by bad weather from Typhoon Matmo which had lashed the island earlier Wednesday. The flight should have been a short hop of 35 minutes, but it was an hour and 20 minutes before it made an initial, aborted landing in heavy rain at Magong, said CNA.
The plane crashed on its second attempt, into buildings in Shishi village about a mile from the airport. The head of Taiwan's Aviation Safety Council, Wang Hsing-chung, told CNA it was unclear whether bad weather or human error was to blame. TransAsia said the pilot, Lee Yi-liang, had 22 years of flight operation experience.
Villagers described a scene from hell as they rushed to help survivors flee the wreckage which later exploded and remained on fire, reported the China Times, a major Taiwanese newspaper. Ten houses were damaged, cars were crushed and body parts were widely strewn, said the paper. Witnesses said bodies fell into their houses, reported ETtoday, a local news website.
The rescue work is so harrowing that the 200 Taiwanese soldiers sent to assist have been given psychological help and told they will accumulate virtue by returning victims' bodies to their relatives, said Taiwan's United Daily News.
One soldier, Cai Minhua, is among the dead, after his scheduled flight to return to base on Penghu from vacation was cancelled.
Although officials said there had been no fatalities on the ground, rescue workers searched Thursday for two missing village children feared trapped under the plane's fuselage, said the Taiwan News website.
Technical staff were expected to arrive in Penghu Thursday to collect DNA from relatives to help identify victims. The airline said it would offer each victim's family $6,700, plus another $27,000 as a funeral subsidy.
Some scheduled passengers made a lucky escape. After staying too long at her parents' house in Kaohsiung, Chen Caijia and her son arrived late at the airport and missed the flight back home to Penghu.
A woman surnamed Hong crawled out of wreckage in the dark and borrowed a phone from a nearby house to call her father, who soon arrived to help other survivors, said the United Daily News.
Communities across Penghu began mourning the victims, Thursday. Zhong Jiawei was the popular bus driver of Magong High School. Students recalled Zhong as a humorous man who always played pop music on the bus. He loved to play tricks too, and chat with students, they told Now News.
Penghu resident Chen Runqing died along with his elder sister's two daughters, her son and her son-in-law, reported United Daily News.
Ye Genzhuang, 83, a famous carpenter who worked on ancient buildings, also perished, said Now News.
Two planes were reported to have landed safely at Magong airport shortly before the crash, as aviation authorities had ruled visibility was satisfactory despite the tail end of Typhoon Matmo. Some Taiwanese questioned that perhaps fatal decision.
"I can't understand why the plane had to take off in such terrible weather?" wrote United Daily News journalist Wu Shujun, who experienced such heavy turbulence close to Penghu Wednesday evening, at a similar time to Flight GE222, that her plane returned to Taipei without landing.
"Are they playing jokes with human life?" wrote Wu who was going on vacation to Penghu with her son.