By WILLIAM FOREMAN
TAIPEI, Taiwan – A Singapore Airlines 747 jetliner taking off for Los Angeles hit an object on the runway during a storm today, scattering flaming wreckage across the tarmac. At least 65 people were killed, a Taiwanese official said.
Taiwanese aviation official Billy K.C. Chang said that in addition to those who died, 84 people were injured and 30 were unaccounted for.
Earlier, the airline had offered differing figures on the casualties. Airline spokesman Cheng Jeng-hsien in Taipei said 47 people were confirmed dead, 84 were injured and 48 were unaccounted for. In Los Angeles, airline spokesman James Boyd said 49 people were killed and 70 injured.
The reason for the discrepancies was not immediately clear.
A full breakdown of those aboard Flight SQ006 was not released, but airline spokesman Rick Clements said in Singapore that 47 U.S. citizens and 55 Taiwanese were among them.
Three survivors said they felt the plane slam into something on the runway while trying to take off at Taipei’s Chiang Kai-shek International Airport. Airline officials said the pilot also reported hitting an object on the runway, but no one offered an explanation of what it might have been. A China Airways official denied initial reports that the jumbo jet had hit one of its planes on the ground.
Despite the rain, video footage showed parts of the Boeing 747-400 series plane spewing flames and thick black smoke. Afterward, parts of the plane’s blue fuselage appeared badly charred, with a gaping hole in the roof of the forward section.
“It felt like we bumped into something huge,” said Doug Villermin, 33, of New Iberia, La., who was standing outside a hospital afterward, wrapped in a tunic and smoking a cigarette. “It looked like the front end just fell off. From there, it just started to fall apart. I ran to the escape hatch with the stewardess but we couldn’t get it open. Two feet away from me, I saw flames.
“Everyone was just panicking,” he said. “I tried to open the escape hatch on the top just a slit and saw a lot of smoke. The fumes were just incredible. But eventually we got it open. … We were just all so scared it was going to blow up.”
Steven Courtney of Britain was sitting on a hospital bed, oxygen tubes in his nose as he was whisked away to an operating room.
“The left wing seemed to hit something and then it was just a big roller coaster ride,” he said. “Flames were everywhere.”
The aborted takeoff occurred at 11:18 p.m. Minutes later, ambulances and rescue vehicles crowded the wet tarmac, lights flashing.
Local TV reports showed a frantic scene at Chang Gung Memorial Hospital near the airport, where emergency room workers gently lifted injured people from ambulances. Some appeared to be burned. They laid on stretchers with their arms stretched stiffly in front of their torsos.
Tonya Joy, 37, of New Zealand, was being pushed toward the operating room.
“I felt two hits and we twisted around twice,” she said. “I jumped out of the top and landed on the ground, so the doctors think there is something wrong with my spine. The weather was just awful. Flames came so fast on both sides of the plane.”
About a half-dozen relatives arrived today at the Los Angeles airport. They were escorted to a private room with counselors from the Red Cross to await news on the passengers, said B.V. Castillo, a Red Cross spokeswoman.
In Singapore, officials set up a crisis management center at Changi airport. A handful of relatives, some in tears, were led to the cordoned-off area by crisis workers.
Singapore Airlines, the South Asian city-state’s flagship carrier, is one of the world’s most profitable airlines. It has been flying for 28 years and had never crashed.
The plane that burst into flames today was bought new in January 1997, Boyd said. He said there had been no problems with the aircraft, which underwent its last maintenance check on Sept. 16.
On Dec. 19, 1997, a SilkAir Boeing 737 was cruising over Indonesia at 35,000 feet when the jet suddenly nosed down, diving at supersonic speeds until it smashed into a river, killing all 104 people aboard. Singapore Airlines is the parent company of SilkAir.
The storm pounding Taiwan, Typhoon Xangsane, had whirled closer to the island’s southern coast today and heavy rains have already begun soaking the capital, Taipei. The typhoon was packing 90 mph winds and was expected to make landfall by Wednesday if it maintained its current course, the Central Weather Bureau said.
Earlier in the evening, the storm had prompted officials to set up disaster relief centers, cancel some flights, call off classes and raise land and sea warnings. Typhoon relief and coordinating centers were set up all over southern Taiwan, and officials warned residents against landslides and flash floods.
The incident comes a year to the day after EgyptAir Flight 990 plunged into the Atlantic Ocean while en route from New York to Cairo. That disaster killed 217 people.
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