Jet crashes in Taiwan, killing 78

Herald news services

TAIPEI, Taiwan — A Singapore Airlines jumbo jet speeding down a runway in darkness and rain slammed into an object as it took off for Los Angeles, bursting into flames at 11:18 p.m. local time Tuesday, scattering fiery wreckage across the tarmac, witnesses said. The crash killed 78 people, and dozens more were injured, a Taiwanese official said.

It wasn’t immediately clear what Flight SQ006 hit, but video footage showed the Boeing 747-400 spewing flames and thick black smoke despite the heavy rain. Afterward, parts of the blue-and-white fuselage were badly charred, with a gaping hole in the roof of the forward section.

There were 20 crew members and 159 passengers on board. Airline spokesman Rick Clements said 47 U.S. citizens and 55 Taiwanese were among the passengers.

Before bursting into flames, the plane apparently swerved off the runway and onto a spare runway that was being repaired, said Chou Kuang-tsan of the Aviation Safety Council, which investigates Taiwanese air accidents.

Chou would not speculate why the plane left the runway and what it might have hit, but local TV reports showed the wreckage of a construction crane and other equipment near the crash site. "We still can’t rule out any possibilities," Chou told reporters.

"It felt like we bumped into something huge," said Doug Villermin, 33, of New Iberia, La., who was standing outside the Chang Gung Memorial Hospital, wrapped in a hospital gown 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."

The scene at the hospital was frantic just after the crash as emergency room workers gently lifted injured people from ambulances. Some appeared to be burned. They lay on stretchers with their arms stretched stiffly in front of them.

It was Singapore Airlines’ first major accident in 28 years of operation, and it came in nasty weather. A typhoon packing 90 mph winds was whirling off Taiwan’s southern coast Tuesday, lashing the island with rain and prompting officials to set up disaster relief centers.

Taiwanese civil aviation official Billy K.C. Chang said 78 people died and 85 were hospitalized. Earlier, Singapore Airlines Chairman Michael Fam said 66 people were killed. None of the crew, including the captain and two co-pilots, appeared to have suffered major injury.

One of the pilots told investigators that the airliner seemed to strike something in midair seconds into the flight, a spokesman for Singapore Airlines told reporters. The spokesman declined to speculate on what that object might have been.

Taiwanese officials sought to dampen speculation that air traffic controllers or the pilots of the aircraft erred in proceeding with the takeoff during heavy rain and winds gusting at more than 60 miles per hour.

Taiwan’s prime minister, Chang Chun-hsing, briefing reporters at a nearby hospital, stressed that both controllers and pilots are well-versed in reading weather patterns around Chiang Kai-shek International Airport, which serves a nation in which tropical storms are common.

Clements said Singapore Airlines would provide all families of victims with $25,000 immediate compensation.

"We should wait for the investigations, but the early indications are that it (the plane) did momentarily take off," he said.

Besides the Americans and Taiwanese, airline spokesman James Boyd in Los Angeles said there also were 11 Singaporeans on board, 11 Indians, eight Malaysians, five Indonesians, four Mexicans, four British, two each from Thailand, New Zealand and Vietnam, and one each from Australia, Canada, Cambodia, Germany, Japan, Philippines, Ireland and the Canary Islands of Spain.

Survivors grappled with the memory of the crash. "The left wing seemed to hit something, and then it was just a big roller-coaster ride," said survivor Steven Courtney of Britain, oxygen tubes in his nose as he was whisked away to an operating room at a nearby hospital. "Flames were everywhere."

In Washington, the National Transportation Safety Board said it was sending a team of investigators to help Taiwan authorities probe the disaster. The eight-member NTSB team was expected to arrive in Taiwan on Thursday evening.

Singapore Airlines, the South Asian city-state’s flagship carrier, is one of the world’s most profitable airlines and has one of the industry’s best safety records.

The national carrier enjoys a young fleet of modern aircraft. It flies to more than 40 countries and, with its traditionally dressed stewardesses and free amenities, is consistently voted the most favored airline of business travelers.

The plane that burst into flames Tuesday 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.

Clements said the Malaysian captain joined the airline in 1979 and had 11,235 flight hours.

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