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Los Angeles-Bound Singapore Airlines 747 Crashes in Taiwan

Aired October 31, 2000 - 2:01 p.m. ET


LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: A Boeing 747 400 series bound for Los Angeles crashes upon takeoff in Taiwan at Chiang Kai-Shek Airport. Survivors describe how they escape the fiery scene. CNN TODAY continues; I'm Lou Waters.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Natalie Allen. Thank you for staying with us.

With the typhoon approaching Taiwan, Singapore Airlines Flight 006 was trying to get airborne for Los Angeles Tuesday night. It apparently didn't make it. Some witnesses saying they were barely in the air 10 seconds before the crash. The plane had 179 people aboard: 159 passengers, 20 crew members. And it crashed in flames on the runway. But the airline officially is calling it an aborted takeoff. The airline initially said no one killed, but now reports from Taiwan indicate there may be five dead. Witnesses say strong winds from the storm pushed the plane flat onto the runway, perhaps an indication of wind shear. However, the airline just reported the last hour here that the flight commander said he'd hit an object on takeoff.

One of the passengers talked with CNN.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We were taxiing down the runway. We were approaching take-off speed. And then, all of a sudden, there was a very loud noise, the lights went out, the plane started to come apart. We, obviously, realized at that point we were in a plane crash. And we thought we were all going to die.

Eventually the plane -- the tail section that we were in -- turned over several times, and we ended up on our sides with all the passengers basically passengers on one side of plane were all up in the air

A lot of people were still stuck up there. We tried to get the back emergency exit open. We couldn't do that, because that was strap -- we couldn't get it open. So we all tried to leave. We tried to make our way to the front of what was left of the tail section. And basically, we got to a certain stage, and we could see that the whole plane had broken in two.

So, at that point, we tried to get as many people as we could out of the section. There were people still strapped in their seats. We tried to get those down, and there was a gentleman, when I got out of the plane, there was a gentleman trapped underneath the tail section of the plane. He was actually beneath the tail. The tail was on the ground. And we tried to lift -- obviously, we couldn't lift the tail to get the guy out. At that point, there was smoke and flames blowing from the other section of the plane. It was engulfing the tail section.

So, we tried to get -- climb -- in there or tried to make understood that we needed something to jack this section of the plane up so we could get this guy out. But it's very difficult to communicate. It seemed like the emergency crews took forever to get there, but I'm sure it was only just a few minutes. It was a very major disaster.


ALLEN: And you can see the weather conditions as the rescue crews arrive there to help people. Another passenger CNN talked with a short time ago described feeling an impact of hitting something, and again, the commander of the plane telling the airlines that he did believe -- he or she did believe -- they hit something on take-off.

Family members can call this number for more information. It is 1-800-828-0508, 1-800-828-0508. And we're told some of the eighty or so injured are hospitalized with burns -- Lou.

WATERS: CNN's aviation expert, Susan Coughlin, joins us now from San Diego.

Listening to that passenger describe what happened would send chills up the back of neck of anyone who's ever flown. I don't expect you to tell us what happened here, but what do you make of what you've heard so far?

SUSAN COUGHLIN, CNN AVIATION CONSULTANT: Well, obviously, Lou, it's -- the situation is still very much in flux. Both from the standpoint of what might have been the circumstances in the final moments of -- before the crash, but also in terms of those people that survived and whether there were fatalities involved in the accident. Still unfolding, still a lot of information left to be developed, and very fluid at this point.

WATERS: What about the matter of the weather? We heard from own weather department winds gusting to 73 miles an hour. That's nearly hurricane strength. Initial hurricane strength is 74 miles an hour. I'm sure that played a part in this, but what part is what everyone's asking?

COUGHLIN: And obviously, that has yet to be determined. The weather was certainly turbulent at the time of the accident. Whether or not that was the major contributing factor, there are now some reports that there was an object struck on the runway. We don't know whether there was any mechanical issue that might have played into it. But clearly, the weather was -- the weather was severe and might have played a part in the decision to abort the take-off. But obviously becomes more complicated if, in fact, there was a foreign object that was on the runway at the time of the take-off.

WATERS: It was most certainly a combination of things.

COUGHLIN: It was, definitely, at this point, a combination of things and way too early to start definitively talking about what might have happened. They're still in the process of sorting out those that are injured, recovering those that might have lost their lives and notifying the families. And the real investigative work has yet to begin.

WATERS: The plane, a 747 400 series, you heard the gentleman who was a passenger talk about being in an overturning tail section that had broken clear of another part of the plane. What are the safety elements of the 400 series in a situation like this?

COUGHLIN: Well, obviously, if the plane had gained any altitude at all and then returned to the runway surface, it would incur a major force. And obviously that force was enough to do some very major structural damage to the airplane. There have been instances before where airplanes in a controlled crash, if you will, have broken apart, people have -- lives have been saved. It's not an automatic that there will be fatalities involved. But obviously, this plane was fully loaded with fuel. And one of the things -- one of the biggest dangers, obviously, is a fairly aggressive fire following the impact with the runway.

WATERS: What happens now? The Singapore Airlines -- according to one initial report we received earlier today, this is their first major accident. So, what is the investigation process in Taiwan?

COUGHLIN: Well, they will obviously have jurisdiction over the accident investigation. I'm sure that Singapore Airlines will be an active participant in -- in contributing whatever they can, I would imagine the Boeing company, the engine manufacturer, will all be involved. But the jurisdiction of the accident will be with the Taiwanese. Often they ask for help from the U.S. NTSB. I have not received word yet whether their assistance has been requested.

But, obviously, they're going to be looking at what the condition of the runway was, to what extent there were warnings of severe weather, the extent to which there might have been other traffic on the runway that might have contributed to the accident, whether the wind forced some object to be blown onto the runway; a number of scenarios that could unfold, but way too early to be talking about somehow they might have contributed to the final outcome.

WATERS: In the investigation, is there weight given to the passengers, these eyewitness reports that we're already hearing of what happened?

COUGHLIN: Certainly. One of the things about having a lot of survivors is that there are a lot of viewpoints contributed to the -- to the final accident sequence and to our understanding of what might have been happening during that takeoff roll. But eyewitnesses are under a certain amount of stress themselves and they don't always agree in the story they tell. So, it really just becomes a piece of the full picture that the investigators look at in trying to understand ultimately what happened. But they will be a valuable addition.

WATERS: All right, Susan Coughlin, our CNN aviation analyst. Thanks so much.

COUGHLIN: Any time.

ALLEN: And let's go back to CNN's Jim Hill who is at Los Angeles International Airport where this airplane set to arrive, see if there's anything new from there -- Jim.

JIM HILL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Natalie, within the hour, we may hear once again from James Boyd, the spokesperson for Singapore Airlines, here in Los Angeles. The plane was bound for Los Angeles with 159 passengers on board, 20 crew members when the mishap occurred. That would have been just after 11:00, 11:18 at night in Taipei time. It would have arrived here in Los Angeles some 15 hours later, given time changes and so forth, at about 6:15 in the evening. So, a lot of people in Los Angeles very interested for whatever information they can receive about the fate of those on board.

Boyd, about 40 minutes ago, did tell reporters here in the first news conference of the morning, that, of the 159 passengers on board, 68 were reported injured, 16 were not injured. However, he said the conditions of the other remaining passengers were not confirmed at this point. Also, it's interesting to point out that Boyd, when he was describing this mishap, this accident, if you will, crash, or what will you call it, he termed this an aborted take-off.


JAMES BOYD, SINGAPORE AIRLINES: The flight commander on board the aircraft reported hitting an object on the take-off run. Rescue operations are currently in progress and have been for some time. I can confirm to you, and this is updated information from previous statements that were made earlier today, that there are 68 people who are injured, who have been taken to local Taipei airport area hospitals. There are 16 passengers confirmed as not injured. The status of the remaining passengers is still being confirmed.


HILL: Because there are so many unanswered questions at this point, Boyd did say he would try to meet with reporters again during the coming hour. That would be in between 11:00 and 12:00 here, West Coast time to give us more information. Meanwhile, the airline's Web service, its Web site,, is carrying information, which the company says it is constantly updating. Also, it is giving out an 800 number for friends, relatives and so forth of the passengers to call. That number is 1-800-828-0508, 1-800-828-0508. But, meanwhile, we are hoping, within the coming hour, that we will hear again from Mr. Boyd and get updated information from Los Angeles here -- Natalie.

ALLEN: And Jim, would the records, as far as the passenger list for who was on this airplane, would they indicate how many were American?

HILL: Well, certainly, I believe, looking at the passenger list, one could determine that, after all, people would carry passports and so forth. And it would be determined what nationality or passport holders were on that plane. I should say that this is a rather common route to fly in and out of Los Angeles. A lot of Pacific Rim business done, of course, between Taipei and Los Angeles, a lot of business travelers.

And we're told that frequent business travelers, those who do a lot of this kind of flying prefer Singapore Airlines because it is a very long flight, about a 15-hour flight. And the airline is known to cater to business travelers, have somewhat larger of a business class section on the aircraft. So, it's popular with business travelers. You can add two and two, and then kind of get an indication that there would probably be quite a number of business travelers, or potentially quite a number and a lot of those, perhaps, from the Los Angeles area.

ALLEN: And can you tell us any more about the overall safety record of Singapore Airlines?

HILL: As far as I know, this is the first major mishap, the first situation of this sort that the airline has had. Again, the airline is known in the business community, really, as not only a reliable aircraft and a reliable company, but one that caters very, very well to the business traveler, in particular, the frequent business travelers, actually having a larger business class in the aircraft. So, clearly, the record in terms of satisfying the needs and safety desires of frequent flyers in the Pacific Rim area, this airline has a very good reputation.

ALLEN: All right, Jim Hill in Los Angeles. Indeed, one of the passengers that CNN talked with earlier today who was not hurt was a businessman from New Orleans and he described the plane as shaking and sliding and said he was able to open a door to escape. He got out and just started running and he said the whole thing blew up. There were flames all over the place. That was a businessman trying to get back home after a trip to Taiwan.



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