An airplane carrying 58 passengers and crew members clipped a bridge and crashed into a river in Taiwan minutes after takeoff Wednesday, killing at least 31 people, officials said.
Rescuers using rubber rafts worked into the night to save 15 people trapped in the mostly submerged wreckage. But by early Thursday, hope was fading for the 12 people still unaccounted for as divers explored the river bottom.
The ATR-72 aircraft operated by Taipei-based TransAsia Airways took off at 10:53 a.m. and lost contact with the control tower about two minutes later, Taiwan's Civil Aeronautics Administration said. A distress signal was issued: “May day. May day. Engine flameout.”
FOR THE RECORD
4:40 pm: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that the flight took off about noon. The flight took off at 10:53 a.m.
There was no other information about the cause of the crash, officials said. The plane's flight recorders were recovered from the wreckage and an investigation will be launched.
“I hereby profusely apologize, and TransAsia will do its utmost to help the injured and families of the victims, doing all we can to mobilize people” to help, the airline's chief executive, Peter Chen, said at a midafternoon news conference in Taipei.
The turboprop plane flew sideways across a heavily used freeway, scraping a taxi and injuring the driver, seconds before it plunged into the Keelung River, according to dramatic images shown on television.
Nearly 600 search-and-rescue workers from three cities and Taiwan’s military used hydraulic rescue tools to break apart an exposed portion of the fuselage, which had crashed sideways in the river, and to extricate people through an aircraft door. Survivors were transported to eight hospitals.
Rescuers worked past nightfall to build docks into the river and pull out bodies. The pilot and copilot were found dead.
The death toll was expected to rise after a crane was used to hoist the wreckage to shore, allowing crews to search through previously submerged portions of the fuselage.
“We would like to express our thanks for the timely rescue work that has with each second and each minute been able” to save lives, Chen said.
Among those saved was a Taiwanese boy who nearly drowned. The boy spent several minutes underwater before he and his parents, who were sitting near a fracture in the fuselage, were rescued. The boy, whose age was not available, received CPR, his uncle, Lin Ming-yi, told reporters late Wednesday.
“My brother profusely thanks the rescue workers,” Lin said. “Fifteen minutes after the crash, a lot of workers and lifeboats had already reached the site to save people.”
TransAsia Flight GE235, which was carrying 31 mainland Chinese tourists, was headed to an airport in Kinmen, islets in the Taiwan Strait near the mainland province of Fujian.
Family members of the victims, many still in China, had not reached the scene as of late Wednesday. Rescue workers closed the adjacent freeway and kept onlookers at a distance from their operations.
The crash was TransAsia’s second in just over six months; a domestic flight went down July 23 while trying to land in the Penghu islands near the end of a typhoon. That crash killed 48 people.
The aircraft in Wednesday's crash, the same European-made model that crashed in July, was just 9 months old and had undergone scheduled maintenance on Jan. 26, Chen said.
The 64-year-old airline had a clean safety record before July.
Taiwan averaged 1,238 flights per day in the first half of 2014. The last deadly commercial airline accident before the July crash was 2002, when a plane operated by Taiwan-based China Airlines exploded over the Taiwan Strait shortly after takeoff; 225 people died.
Jennings is a special correspondent.