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Taiwan Crash Has Echoes of Flight 800

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The lead investigator of the weekend crash of a China Airlines 747 that broke up and fell into the Taiwan Strait with 225 people on board said today that his team had begun studying similarities with the crash of a TWA jumbo jet off New York six years ago.

“That is certainly an important incident for us,” said Kay Yong, managing director of Taiwan’s Aviation Safety Council, the government agency responsible for determining the cause of Saturday’s crash.

In a telephone interview from the Taiwanese capital, Taipei, Yong said that both planes were among the first versions produced of the Boeing 747 aircraft and that both disintegrated without any apparent warning shortly into their flights.

After years of speculation, safety investigators in the United States concluded that faulty wiring most likely triggered a fuel tank explosion that brought down TWA Flight 800 in July 1996, just 14 minutes into a transatlantic flight from New York’s JFK International Airport. All 230 people on board perished.

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Yong’s comments came as investigators determined that China Airlines Flight 611 apparently split into four pieces shortly after it reached its cruising altitude of 31,000 feet. The aircraft disappeared from radar screens without warning about 20 minutes into a 90-minute flight from Taipei to Hong Kong.

The TWA plane was from the 747-100 series and had been in service for 25 years at the time it went down off Long Island. The China Airlines aircraft was a slightly modified jumbo jet from the 747-200 series in its 23rd year of operation. Yong said the fuel tank designs on both models were virtually identical.

But Yong cautioned that it was far too early to draw conclusions about the cause of the accident.

“Right now, we don’t have any evidence other than the radar track,” he said. “Honestly, it is not possible to rule anything out.”

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He said that early today, the investigators located both the plane’s cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder in waters about 15 miles north of the town of Makung, the major city of the Penghu islands.

“The next step is to retrieve those recorders and determine what they can tell us,” he said.

A team of investigators from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board was due to arrive in Taipei later today. Participation of U.S. specialists is considered routine when an American-made plane is involved, officials said.

Taiwanese Deputy Minister of Transportation Chang Chia-chu also told reporters it was too early to discuss exactly what might have triggered the plane’s midair disintegration.

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“There are many causes that could lead to high-altitude disintegration,” he said. “It might have something to do with the plane’s structure or mechanical problems.”

Because the plane was flying in airspace between Taiwan and its longtime adversary, China, some Taiwanese speculated it might have been brought down by a missile. Others talked about a possible bomb on board, but investigators said there was no initial evidence to indicate the aircraft was brought down intentionally.

Saturday’s crash marked the fourth fatal accident for China Airlines in the last eight years, giving the airline one of the worst safety records in civil aviation. Saturday’s disaster involved the last remaining passenger-configured 747-200 in the carrier’s fleet of 29 jumbo jets. Airline officials said the plane was due to be sold shortly.

The airline grounded its four 747-200 cargo planes Sunday, pending safety inspections.

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Rescue teams continued to recover bodies today from the choppy seas near the Penghu island group about 30 miles west of Taiwan’s main island. However, brisk winds and 10-foot waves have hampered recovery efforts. One official involved in the operation said about 80 bodies had been taken from the water.

Taiwan government officials said there was little likelihood that anyone survived.


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