- The Washington Times - Monday, May 27, 2002

TAIPEI, Taiwan A China Airlines jet that crashed into the Taiwan Strait split into four pieces before plunging into the choppy waters, killing 225 passengers and crew, and the chief crash investigator said yesterday.
Search crews pulled 83 bodies from seas that reeked of jet fuel, but the Boeing 747-200's flight-data and voice recorders, or "black boxes," had not been recovered, leaving the accident's cause a mystery.
About 20 minutes after Flight CI611 took off from Taipei's international airport Saturday, military radar showed it "disintegrated" into four pieces before dropping off the radar screen, said Kay Yong, managing director of Taiwan's Aviation Safety Council.
"There was an in-flight breakup above the altitude of 30,000 feet. We are very positive about this," Mrs. Yong said.
Mrs. Yong and other officials would not speculate on what caused the 22-year-old plane to break up.
There was no evidence to suggest the plane was hit by a missile. Any missile strong enough to reach 35,000 feet likely would have been detected by the United States.
The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board sent three staffers to help Taiwanese officials with the investigation.
James L.S. Chang, a China Airlines vice president, declined to offer a crash theory but said the accident was unusual.
"At such a high altitude to have something go wrong and the pilot didn't even have time to send a distress signal. Now that's a big question mark," Mr. Chang said.
The transcript of the pilots' conversation with the control tower was released yesterday, but it offered no clues about the crash's cause. The pilots never mentioned any problems.
A Bush administration official familiar with intelligence and defense issues said little was known about the plane's breakup. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the plane's altitude at the time it disappeared from radar certainly makes it sound like an explosion was involved.
Also yesterday, the government ordered China Airlines, Taiwan's biggest carrier, to ground the remaining four Boeing 747-200 planes in its fleet until inspections prove they are safe. The planes are between 13 and 22 years old.
"There are many causes that could lead to high-altitude disintegration. It might have something to do with the plane's structure and mechanical problems," said Chang Chia-chu, vice transportation minister, who announced the decision to ground the planes.
Mr. Chang also said the airline, which is trying to shed a reputation as one of the world's most dangerous carriers, must step up inspections of its 46 passenger jets.
Flight CI611 crashed Saturday about 20 nautical miles north of Taiwan's Penghu island chain, also known as the Pescadores. The islands are about 30 miles off Taiwan's western coast.

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