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205 dead as China Air jet slams into Taiwan neighborhood

Tent with bodies
Bodies are lined up in tents outside of the crash site
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    February 16, 1998
    Web posted at: 8:18 p.m. EST (0118 GMT)

    TAIPEI, Taiwan (CNN) -- Police sealed off a semi-rural area and rescue teams pulled bodies and parts of bodies from homes destroyed when a China Airlines jet trying to land in fog crashed Monday, killing all 196 aboard and nine people on the ground.

    China Airlines said the dead among the 182 passengers and 14 crew members included the governor of Taiwan's Central Bank and other key financial officials along with Taiwanese families returning from vacations in Bali and four Americans. Victims on the ground included a 2-month-old infant.

    Witnesses said the airliner hit hundreds of yards short of the runway at Chiang Kai-shek International Airport, 25 miles west of Taipei at 8:09 p.m. It tore through the second floors of homes strung along a highway before skidding into a rice paddy and exploding.

    The smell of jet fuel and burning rubber filled the air hours after the crash in an area that is home to a mixture of fish farms, rice paddies, small factories and warehouses.

    Firefighters went house to house in the blackened neighborhood, extinguishing flames licking at doors and windows and searching for survivors. A 10-year-old boy who was taken alive from the wreckage died a short time later at a hospital.

    'Parts of the house started to fall down'

    Scene of crash
    Scene of crash Tuesday morning

    Firefighters and rescue workers filled plastic bags with body parts scattered by the blast while other charred remains lay in the road as other firefighters sprayed the area with flame-retardant detergent.

    "I heard a blast, and was scared to death. Parts of the house started to fall down," said Chen Ah-mei, who had to crawl out of the ruins of her home on her hands and knees. She and her husband were being treated at a hospital.

    "It happened so fast -- noise and fire," said an elderly farmer who ran to the scene as soon as he saw the flames. He identified himself only as Chen.

    Heavy fog was reported around the airport throughout the afternoon and evening, and a light rain was falling at the time of the crash.

    Airline officials said the plane had problems with its approach to the airport.

    "Visibility was extremely bad," airline spokesman Liu Kuo-chien said. "The pilot said he was having trouble seeing the runway as he made his approach and asked to come around for another try.

    "Immediately after he asked for another try, the pilot lost contact with the tower," Liu said.

    Worst crash in airport's history

    Tsai Tuei, the director of the Civil Aeronautics Administration, resigned immediately to take moral responsibility for the crash, the worst in the airport's history.

    police block scene
    Police block scene

    The tail of the shattered jet was the only recognizable part. Searchlights illuminated a life raft from the Airbus A-300 wrapped around a broken tree stump. Seats from the plane were scattered in the dirt, one with a body trapped beneath it.

    Families of passengers at hospitals and the airport burst into tears and fell into each other's arms when they learned of the extent of the disaster. One woman collapsed to the floor.

    "They all went to Bali on a trip -- and they are all dead," said a woman whose four children were on the flight.

    Airport officials said two flight data recorders were recovered and were being analyzed to help determine the cause of the crash.

    Among those aboard Flight 676 were Sheu Yuan-dong, governor of Taiwan's Central Bank, his wife, and four other finance officials returning from a conference in Bali.

    Sheu, 70, was credited with helping keep Taiwan safe from the economic chaos that is gripping much of Asia. Taiwan is sitting on large international currency reserves it has used to protect its currency from speculators. Banking officials also reformed the system two years ago to prevent the types of questionable loans that have gotten other Asian banks in trouble.

    Airline has 5 other crashes since '86

    Airbus Industrie, which is based in Toulouse, France, released a statement saying that the plane was delivered to China Airlines in December 1990. By the end of January 1998, it had accumulated approximately 20,070 flight hours in 8,800 flights, Airbus said.

    China Airlines has had five other crashes since 1986, including the crash of another Airbus A-300 in Nagoya, Japan, that killed 264 people in 1994. After that crash, the airline began a safety campaign that included pilot retraining. Japanese investigators blamed the Nagoya crash on an aborted landing and an inexperienced co-pilot.

    Taiwanese Premier Vincent Siew said Monday that a task force would assist victims' families and promised to investigate the cause of the crash. China Airlines established a number that people in the United States can call for information about those on board: 1-888-830-6430.

    The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.


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