The wreck of a TransAsia plane was hoisted from a shallow river in Taipei as night fell on Wednesday as rescuers continued their search for 18 people missing in a crash that killed at least 25.
During the day, rescue workers in rubber rafts pulled 15 people from the partially submerged fueslage of the ATR-72 propeller jet, where it came to rest after crashing into the river shortly after takeoff over Taiwan’s capital.
TransAsia GE 235, a domestic flight from Taipei to Kinmen – a small archipelago near mainland China – crashed at 10.56am local time. Dash-cam videos posted online showed the aircraft in its final airborne moments, turning vertical over a highway and clipping a taxi cab and a bridge with its left wing, before careering into the Keelung river.
Taiwanese broadcasters repeatedly played a recording of the plane’s final contact with the control tower in which the pilot called out “Mayday” three times. The recording offered no clues as to why the plane was in distress.
There was speculation in local media that the pilot may have turned sharply to follow the line of the river to avoid crashing into a high-rise residential area, but Taiwan’s aviation authority said it had no evidence of that.
At the rescue scene, workers brought in a crane to remove the wreck from the river. The death toll was expected to rise once crews were able to search through previously submerged portions of the fuselage.
Among the passengers were 31 mainland Chinese tourists, travelling with two local travel agencies: Teyung Group, and Flying Tours.
Lin Liqing, manager of the Teyung Group, said she had just arrived in Taipei to help with the handling of the incident.
Wednesday’s crash is the second by a TransAsia flight within the past six months – in July 2014, TransAsia flight ATR-72 crashed while attempting to land in the Penghu Islands soon after a typhoon, killing 48 people. The cause of the crash is still being investigated.
The flight’s black box has been recovered, according to local media. “Weather conditions were good and the pilot had 14,000 hours of flying hours and the co-pilot 4,000 hours,” Lin Zhiming, a representative from Taiwan’s Civil Aviation Authority, told reporters.
The driver of the clipped taxi cab “has been sent to a local hospital”, an assistant to the Crown Taxi Company’s general manager who identified himself as Mr Yang said.
“He has a head injury and concussion, but all of his vital signs are stable.” Yang added that the company planned to raise the topic of compensation with TransAsia Airways at a later date.
As a drizzle fell around nightfall, military crews took portable bridges to the scene, where rescue workers were building docks for easier access to the wreckage. About 300 rescue personnel and members of the media stood along the banks of the narrow river.
Relatives of the victims had not reached the scene by dusk on Wednesday but some were expected to arrive on Thursday, including some flying from Beijing.
ATR, a French-Italian consortium based in Toulouse, France, said it was sending a team to Taiwan to help in the investigation.
The ATR 72-600 that crashed is the manufacturer’s best model, and the pilot had 4,900 hours of flying experience, said Lin Chih-ming of the Civil Aeronautics Administration.
Greg Waldron, Asia managing editor at Flightglobal magazine in Singapore, said the ATR 72-600 is the latest iteration of one of the most popular turboprop planes in the world, particularly favoured for regional short-hop flights in Asia.
It has a good reputation for safety and reliability and is known among airlines for being cheap and efficient to operate. “It’s too early now to speculate on whether it was an issue with the aircraft or crew,” Waldron said.
The accessibility of the crash site should allow for a swift investigation and an initial report should be available within about a month, Waldron said.