- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 26, 2002

PENGHU, Taiwan A Boeing 747-200 that China Airlines planned to retire next month crashed yesterday in the Taiwan Strait as it was flying 225 persons to Hong Kong. No survivors were immediately found, and the airline said about 100 bodies were spotted floating in the choppy waters.
The pilots of Flight CI611 sent no distress signals before the plane dropped off radar screens about 20 minutes after taking off in clear weather at Taipei's international airport, said James L.S. Chang, a China Airlines vice president.
"Communications had been normal," Mr. Chang said. "The light spot suddenly disappeared from radar."
The jetliner went down about 20 nautical miles northeast of the Penghu island chain, about 170 miles southwest of Taipei, said Chang Chia-chu, a vice transportation minister. Penghu, also known as the Pescadores, is about 30 miles off Taiwan's western coast.
Losing the plane is a serious blow for China Airlines, which is trying to shed a reputation for being one of the world's most dangerous airlines. In the past five years, Taiwan's largest carrier has been aggressively retraining pilots and revamping its safety procedures.
There were early suspicions that the plane might have exploded in flight because farmers in the west coast county of Changhua near the plane's flight path were finding scraps of airline magazines, immigration forms and other papers with China Airlines stickers or labels on them. TVBS cable news showed officials wading into rice fields with flashlights collecting the bits of paper and putting them in plastic bags.
But Mr. Chang of China Airlines said that so far there were was no hard evidence of an in-flight explosion. "We need to find witnesses. We received no signs showing it," he said.
Seven bodies were recovered and about 100 others were spotted floating, he said.
The jetliner was carrying 206 passengers and 19 crew, said Wang Cheng-yu, an official with China Airlines. Most of the passengers were Taiwanese, but the passenger list also included one Singaporean, five persons from Hong Kong, nine from China and a Swiss citizen.
The plane was flying at 35,000 feet when it went missing, said Chang Chia-chu, the vice transportation minister.
Fog and darkness hindered the search efforts of coast guard ships and fishing boats that usually trawl the strait for squid. Scores of soldiers wearing surgical masks and stacking olive green body bags waited for bodies to be brought to the island chain's northern port.
At Taipei's airport, some victims' families suspected that the crash was caused by the plane's age. The airline had been using the Boeing 747-200 for 22 years.
"Why did they put this old plane in service? Did they want people to die?" asked El-Hinn Ibrahim, who had two sisters-in-law and one brother-in-law on the flight.
Airline executive James Chang told reporters that China Airlines planned to take the plane out of service next month. The plane had a major overhaul last year and was a safe aircraft, he said.
Larry McCracken, vice president of public relations for Boeing, said the age of the plane would not be a factor by itself.

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