China missile ruled out in Taiwan crash
TAIPEI, Taiwan -- As Taiwan investigators sifted through wreckage of a China Airlines jet to try to find out why it fell apart at over 30,000 feet, the military dismissed speculation it may have been hit by a Chinese missile.
After two days of searching the rough waters of the Taiwan Strait, investigators have few answers about why a China Airlines 747, carrying 225 people, crashed into the sea.
Taiwan's aviation officials say they will ground all remaining models of the plane, a Boeing 747-200, until the cause of the crash is determined.
Authorities say the plane broke into four pieces before dropping off radar screens.
"We are very certain the plane disintegrated while above 30,000 feet (9,144 meters)," Kay Yong, managing director of Taiwan's Aviation Safety Council, told a news conference.
A Taiwan military spokesman dismissed speculation that a Chinese missile may have hit the aircraft.
"Communist China has denied it. We think its denial is highly credible," the spokesman told Reuters news agency, responding to a report on cable news network Formosa TV which quoted an unidentified military analyst as saying a Chinese missile may be to blame.
"Based on our own judgment, we can also say it's absolutely impossible," the spokesman said, adding that Taiwan's military was not conducting any exercises or missile-testing in the area at the time of the crash.
Taipei and Beijing have been bitter rivals since their split at the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949. Beijing views the democratic island as a breakaway province that must be returned to the fold, by force if necessary.
Flight CI 611 crashed en route from Taipei to Hong Kong. Officials say they hold little hope of finding any survivors.
The 22-year-old plane was carrying 19 crew members and 206 passengers when it disappeared off radar screens about 20 minutes after taking off at around 3:00 p.m. (0700 GMT) from Taiwan's Chiang Kai-shek International Airport.
Aviation officials said there was no sign of previous mechanical trouble, no sign of foul play and the weather was clear at the time of the crash.
Rough seas swelling to three meters (10 feet) are hindering search and recovery teams combing the waters of the crash site near the Penghu island group, also known as the Pescadores, about 50 km (30 miles) off Taiwan's west coast.
Fishing boats and naval vessels have so far plucked about 80 bodies and several pieces of wreckage from the rough waters.
Relatives of the victims have been flown to a nearby island where a makeshift morgue has been set up.
China Airlines official Wang Cheng-yu said most of the passengers were from Taiwan but there were two from Singapore, 14 from Hong Kong, Macau or China and one from Europe.
Data recorder signals
Frogmen were on Monday getting ready to recover the airliner's flight recorders, located in about 50 meters of water.
"Now that we know the location of the black boxes, we should be able to retrieve them today," said an official at the government's emergency response centre.
Aviation authorities say the pilot had not issued any distress signals before the plane disappeared off radar screens, leading to the suggestion that disaster struck Flight CI 611 quickly.
The weather was cloudy when the plane took off, but conditions were not extreme, authorities said.
Adding to the mystery is the fact that most of the bodies recovered have been intact and do not appear to be charred, suggesting there may not have been an explosion on board.
U.S. crash investigators from the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board have been dispatched to Taiwan to help local investigators try to determine the cause of the crash.
Terrorism ruled out
A former NTSB expert says it is significant that there was no distress signal before the plane disappeared from radar screens.
"It doesn't rule out the possibility that something else happened to the airplane and that the pilot lost control and the aircraft broke apart," Former NTSB Vice Chairman Robert Francis told CNN.
Investigators said there's no suggestion at this point that terrorism was in any way involved, and that their probe centers on mechanical or technical problems with the plane.
Speculation is rife in local media that the accident may have been caused by problems with wiring and cables due to the plane's advanced age.
The crash is also being compared with the TWA 800 disaster in 1996, when a Boeing 747 bound for Paris exploded shortly after takeoff from New York's Long Island, killing all 230 people on board.
Investigators there have concluded provisionally that an electrical spark ignited a partly empty fuel tank causing an explosion.
The China Airlines crash is the fourth fatal crash for Taiwan's leading carrier in the last decade. (Full story)
The plane was one of the oldest planes in the China Airlines fleet. The flight was supposed to have been the plane's last journey before being sold to a chartered carrier in Thailand.
China Airlines was considered one of the world's most dangerous airlines after a series of crashes in the 1990s.
In recent years, it has put more emphasis on safety.
"We feel so deeply sorry for this incident," China Airlines general manager David Fei said at a news conference. "Safety is our top priority."
The last known fatal China Airlines accident occurred in 1999 when a passenger jet flipped over and burst into flames during a crash landing in Hong Kong. Three people were killed.
-- CNN Senior Asia Correspondent Mike Chinoy contributed to this report
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