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2 Die, 206 Hurt as Jet Flips During Storm in Hong Kong

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From Associated Press

A China Airlines jet burst into flames, flipped upside down and slid down the runway at Hong Kong’s new airport Sunday while trying to land in a tropical storm, killing two people and injuring at least 206, officials said.

The jet’s right wing dipped and struck the runway, breaking off as the airplane caught fire, officials told reporters.

Witnesses said the jet was ablaze before it hit the ground--an account disputed by Hong Kong officials and China Airlines.

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The victims were a Portuguese woman and a Taiwanese man, according to China Airlines Vice President Chang Liang-shi at the carrier’s headquarters in Taipei, Taiwan. Four Americans were among the 315 passengers and crew on board.

The crash occurred at 6:40 p.m., and everyone aboard had been evacuated by 7:30 p.m., Scott Shih, a spokesman for China Airlines, said in Taipei.

The crash was a major setback for the airline, which has struggled in recent years to overcome a poor safety record and a reputation for arrogant and undisciplined pilots.

Flight 642 from Bangkok, Thailand, was thrown off balance by “an overly hard side wind” as the pilot tried to land the MD-11 jet during tropical storm Sam, Shih said.

The plane’s body remained intact, and the landing gear pointed up into the night sky under huge spotlights set up by rescuers.

Passenger Joemy Tam described a harrowing landing in the storm, which earlier had limited operations at Chek Lap Kok airport.

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“The airplane tried to lift up, but somehow it couldn’t,” Tam told Radio Hong Kong. “On the right-hand side, the wing hit the ground, and I saw the explosion, the fire, coming all the way from the front of the plane to the rear.”

Passengers found themselves dangling in the air, strapped into seats that had been turned upside down. Tam said he freed himself, then helped the person next to him. Stunned passengers, some of them burned, were screaming as they made their way out onto a runway drenched with jet fuel.

Taiwanese aviation officials said the cockpit crew originally had decided to fly straight from Bangkok to Taipei, skipping a scheduled stop in Hong Kong because of the storm.

But as the plane flew nearer to Hong Kong, the winds seemed calm enough to land, the officials said, quoting an account from the co-pilot, Liu Cheng-hsi.

Liu said the plane’s right wing dipped about 15 degrees as the airplane approached the runway and was hit by a side wind, but the pilot, C.A. Lettich, did not alter his course and the wing soon dipped a second time, striking the runway and catching fire.

Witnesses at the airport said the jet appeared to be in trouble before it touched down.

“I saw the plane, like a fireball, coming down,” said Toshi Hoshino, a businessman from Osaka, Japan, who was changing flights in Hong Kong. “The right wing hit the ground first. The left side of the body then followed.”

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Hong Kong officials said the airport was kept open during the tropical storm in accordance with international aviation standards.

“The decision to land or not to land lies with the airline,” said Albert Lam, director of Hong Kong’s Civil Aviation Department.

Firefighters had the blaze under control within about five to 10 minutes, said one witness, an American businessman who would not give his name.

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