A China Airlines jet carrying 225 people on a flight from Taipei to Hong Kong crashed into the Taiwan Strait on Saturday, Taiwanese aviation officials said. There were no reports of survivors as night fell over the crash site, about 170 miles southwest of this capital.
Airline executives told reporters that Flight CI-611 disappeared from radar screens about 3:30 p.m., about 20 minutes into the 1 1/2-hour flight from Taipei's Chiang Kai-shek airport to Hong Kong. Most of the 206 passengers and the 19 crew members were Taiwanese. Many families on board were heading for vacations in mainland China.
Taiwanese Transportation Minister Lin Lin-san said there was no hint of trouble and no warning from the crew before the crash. "The plane abruptly disappeared from the radar," he told reporters.
Taiwanese television stations aired footage Saturday evening showing farmers several miles from the crash site picking up debris from the cabin, including bits of in-flight magazines and small items bearing the China Airlines logo. The condition of the debris immediately led to speculation that the plane might have exploded in midair.
Tsai Duei, a vice minister of transportation, initially said the plane broke apart in the sky, but later he said investigators were uncertain what happened, Associated Press reported. Officials could not say whether there was an explosion.
"Because it's at sea, we can't know what happened without concrete evidence," said Taiwanese Prime Minister Yu Shyi-kun.
Early today, airline officials said that rough seas were hampering recovery efforts but that 35 bodies had been retrieved and about 100 others were visible in the water.
The crash was the latest blot on China Airlines' abysmal safety record, one of the worst in civil aviation. The carrier suffered three major crashes over a six-year period during the 1990s in which 470 people died. In an attempt to restore the airline's reputation, much of the senior management was replaced two years ago. The government brought in Christine Tsung, an executive with no significant aviation industry experience, to shape a new corporate culture.
The last China Airlines disaster was in 1999 in Hong Kong, when three of 315 people aboard an MD-11 airliner were killed during a crash landing. Earlier, China Airlines Airbus A300 crashes in Taipei and Nagoya, Japan, claimed 467 lives.
Airline officials said the plane that crashed Saturday was the oldest in its fleet of 29 jumbo jets and the only remaining 747-200 still operated by China Airlines. The 200 series is one of the earliest versions of the 747 and began flying in 1971.
"This is the last one," said airline spokesman Paul Wang. He said that the plane, which was nearly 23 years old, was scheduled to be sold to a company based in Thailand, but that the sale was held up because of financial difficulties on the part of the potential buyer. Wang stressed that the plane had consistently passed frequent airworthiness inspections.
After news of the crash was made public, China Airlines officials in Taipei and Hong Kong called together relatives.
In Taipei, relatives and friends of about 50 passengers met with airline staffers at the airport hotel. A non-Taiwanese man, who identified himself as El-Hinn Ibrahim, screamed that he wanted to "pull down China Airlines."
Ibrahim said his wife, two sisters and a brother-in-law were aboard the plane en route to a vacation in northern China.
Late Saturday, the airline flew about 90 relatives of the victims to the tiny island town of Penghu, about 20 miles from the crash site off Taiwan's western coast, where rescue and recovery efforts were based.
Tsai reported from Taipei and Marshall from Hong Kong. Times researcher Tammy Wong in Hong Kong contributed to this report.