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Taiwan plane crash toll hits 48, officials defend flight clearance

Taiwanese officials Thursday (July 24) defended flight clearance given to a plane which crashed while trying to land during stormy weather, killing 48 people, as sobbing relatives gathered to identify their loved ones.

MAGONG: Taiwanese officials on Thursday (July 24) defended flight clearance given to a plane which crashed in torrential rain, killing 48 people, as angry relatives blamed authorities for the worst air disaster in a decade.

The domestic TransAsia Airways flight was carrying 54 passengers and four crew members when it crashed in Magong in the Penghu island chain, with 10 survivors. Two French medical students were among the dead, the foreign ministry in Paris said.

The ATR 72-500, a propeller plane, was flying from Kaohsiung in southwestern Taiwan to the islands off the west coast when it crashed into two houses near Magong airport, injuring five people on the ground, officials said. Flight GE222 was attempting to land for the second time after aborting the first attempt during thunder and heavy rain as Typhoon Matmo pounded Taiwan.

"The airline should not let the plane take off in such bad weather," a man who gave his family name as Hsu told AFP outside a funeral home in Penghu, his eyes and nose red from crying. Hsu's 28-year-old son was killed in the crash. "The weather was so terrible and Taiwan was still under the typhoon's influence, (the plane) shouldn't have taken off," the daughter of pilot Lee Yi-liang, who also died, told FTV cable news channel.

Taiwanese officials defended the decision to allow the flight to go ahead. "Many people were questioning why the plane took off in typhoon weather... according to my understanding the meteorology data showed that it met the aviation safety requirements," transport minister Yeh Kuang-shih told reporters. Two planes had landed safely at Magong airport shortly before the disaster, officials said.

'FLIGHT MET SAFETY REQUIREMENTS'

On Thursday, the scattered remains of the plane could be seen as more than 100 rescuers -- including firefighters and soldiers -- worked to remove bodies and debris from the scene. It was unclear if all the bodies had been removed from the crash site.

A man surnamed Chen who lost six family members including his older brother in the crash was seen shouting at airline staff in Penghu. "What happened to the plane and what was the cause (of the crash)? At the very least the (airline) should have someone on the scene to comfort the relatives," he told TVBS news channel.

At a nearby funeral home, dozens of relatives -- including the elderly and children -- sobbed as they waited to identify whether their loved ones had been killed. Volunteers tried to comfort them as headshot photographs of the victims were posted on walls to help with identification.

Television footage showed a female survivor identified as Hung Yu-ting being attended to by a nurse in the hospital late Wednesday. Her father said she was the first passenger to climb out of the wreckage of the plane and then borrowed a phone to call for help. "We lived very close to the crash site and Yu-ting called her father to say the plane had crashed. We came to the scene to help the rescue. I carried a child whose legs were injured to the ambulance," Hung's uncle Hung Fu-tsai told AFP.

Hung Fu-tsai said he heard the sound of explosions and initially mistook them for thunder until he heard people screaming and saw the plane on fire. "I saw body parts scattered around. It was so horrible. It took a long time for firefighters to put out the fire despite the heavy rains," said eyewitness Chou Hao-kai. Penghu county deputy fire chief Hsu Wen-kuang said it took firefighters almost an hour to extinguish the fire after the plane burst into flames on impact.

INVESTIGATORS PROBE CRASH

Investigators are looking into the cause of the crash, including why the plane was cleared to fly in bad weather. The airline said pilot 60-year-old Lee Yi-liang had 22 years' experience, including nearly 23,000 flight hours. The co-pilot, 39-year-old Chiang Kuan-hsin, had two and a half years' flying experience.

As some of the relatives arrived in Penghu, others were seen waiting at the airports in Kaohsiung and Taipei to get on a flight to the islands.

TransAsia, Taiwan's first private airline, also runs international flights to China, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Vietnam. It is due to launch the island's first low-cost airline later this year. TransAsia said it planned to compensate each family of the deceased with NT$1 million ($33,000), and offer NT$200,000 to each of the injured.

The last civilian plane crash in Taiwan was in 2002 when a China Airlines plane bound for Hong Kong crashed off Penghu islands into the Taiwan Strait, killing all 225 crew and passengers on board. In the same year a TransAsia Airways ATR-72 plane, the same type of plane that crashed Wednesday, carrying cargo bound for Macau crashed off Penghu killing two crew members. An ATR-72 operated by Lao Airlines crashed during a heavy storm in southern Laos in October 2013, killing all 49 people on board.

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