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Monday, September 17, 2007

Tragedy in Phuket

50 Foreigners among 88 killed in Phuket plane crash

Eighty-eight people, 50 of them foreigners, were killed when a budget commercial airliner crashlanded at Phuket Airport in bad weather conditions Sunday afternoon, officials said.

Forty-two people survived in the first local disaster for lowcost airline industry since its introduction a few years ago.

One Two Go Flight OG 269 lost balance while touching down and skidded off the runway. The MD82 plane slammed into trees and an earth embankment, exploding and breaking in two, witnesses and officials said.

Health Minister Mongkol Na Songkhla said 87 people died and 43 people survived. There were a total of 130 passenger and crew on the plane.

Of the 43 survivors, 15 are Thais and 28 foreigners.

The verification of identities of both the dead and injured were far from complete at press time.

Deputy Transport Minister Sansern Wongchaum earlier said that there were 78 foreigners on board. Tourists from Australia, Austria, Britain, Iran, Ireland, Italy, Sweden and the Netherlands were being treated at main provincial hospitals.

A surviving Thai passenger said the plane "landed hard" and "bounced" and then skidded off the runway. Air Transport Department chief Chiasak Angkauwan said, "the airplane requested to land but due to the weather in Phuket strong wind and heavy rain maybe the pilot did not see the runway clearly."

One survivor told of a fast drop in altitude by the airplane and sudden brief jerk upward. He said they plane then crashlanded and exploded. He saw several fellow passengers on fire.

It was not immediately clear if the pilot, who was reportedly killed, was attempting to pull the aircraft up in the last minute when it crashlanded. He had reportedly been allowed to circle the airport to wait for improvement in weather conditions.

An official at the Phuket Airport control tower, who asked not to be named, said the pilot had been told of bad weather conditions, especially very strong winds. Shortly before the illfated flight crashlanded, another lowcost airliner originating from Hong Kong had successfully touched down, he said.

Officials said victims could have died on impact, or from suffocation or fire resulting from explosions. According to an initial account, the plane's fuselage was torn open in the accident, some of the survivors were those thrown out through the opening.

Flight OG 269, approached the Phuket airport at about 3.40pm from Bangkok. Phuket had earlier been hit by heavy rains.

Eyewitnesses said the impact of the crash caused the plane to break in two and they heard loud explosions.

Rescue teams and navy personnel were involved in the rescue operation. Bodies were piled up in the smouldering wreckage. All flights in and out of the Phuket airport have been cancelled.

An Irish tourist, identifying himself only as "John", said he was on board the flight. He and his friend survived with bruises all over their bodies.

"We sat on the 18th row. The weather was real bad and there were lots of unusual noises during the landing. Something was obviously wrong [during the landing]," he said. He and his friend escaped through the emergency door.

Meanwhile Transportation Minister Thira Haochareon said Phuket International Airport was temporary closed after the crash. He said the body of the aircraft hit the runway and was on fire. The air traffic control source said the aircraft's right wing made contact with the runway at the initial stage of the accident.

MacDonnel Douglas MD82 has a passenger capacity of 175 seats, with flight ceiling of 37,000 feet and flight distance of 3,500 kilometres.

AFP reported that the accident was witnessed from the sky. It said Marine Keisel, from Paris, was aboard a plane behind the one that crashed and saw the accident happen.

"When the plane landed it caught fire," she told AFP at Phuket airport. "We could see the fire coming out of it. It was chaos inside my plane."

Authorities say they will not make any assumption regarding the cause of the tragedy until investigation is completed, although bad weather was obviously a problem at the airport over the weekend. An American pilot who landed just prior to the One Two Go plane reportedly told CNN that the landing was one of the toughest he had ever undertaken - indicating that the weather conditions were severe.

Like several other airlines, One Two Go has reportedly undergone manpower changes. The boss of One Two Go and Orient Thai budget airlines, Udom Tantisprongchai, is said to have replaced several of his Western and Thai pilots - allegedly to cut costs and reduce the chance of work disputes _ with crews with Indonesian and Philippine pilots.

However, authorities insisted it was too soon to presume anything, including whether human errors played a part in the tragedy.

Certain reports said the pilot was given permission to abort the landing in the final minutes.

Communications between the pilot and the air traffic controller and their judgements _ information contained in the black box could shed some light on the tragedy. Some aviation sources said an instruction or decision to land in Krabi could have been taken in extreme weather conditions.

Last night a swarm of media had descended on the office of One Two Go, near the intersection of Asoke and Sukhumvit. With the high death toll and the fact that it took place in the heart of Thailand's tourism industry, the issue of whether or not there were human errors involved could become hot up very soon, the aviation sources said.

The Nation, September 17, 2007

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