Rescuers find 44 dead in crashed Thai airliner

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The Independent Online
A THAI AIRWAYS jetliner with 146 people aboard crashed in heavy rain and exploded in flames yesterday in a swamp in southern Thailand. Officials said there were scores dead and at least 50 confirmed survivors.

Rescuers struggling in chest-high water were reported to have recovered 44 bodies from the wreckage.

Rescue workers told reporters at the Surat Thani airport that scores more bodies remained trapped in the plane, many burnt beyond recognition. Searchers had to wade and swim among the bobbing pieces of shattered aircraft to try to recover the remains.

The survivors were taken to five hospitals around the fishing port of Surat Thani, 503 kilometres (330 miles) south-west of Bangkok. About 10 were westerners, probably tourists, officials said. Thai television reported the pilot survived.

The Transport and Communications Minister, Suthep Thaugsuban, broke down in tears after learning that his sister had been killed. Thawat Wichaidit, 58, a member of parliament, also died. Suthep was booked on Flight TG261 but cancelled to attend a wedding.

The Airbus A310-200, one of two in Thai's fleet, crashed about three miles from the airport at 6.45pm local time. A gardener, Sophon Sapkong, 42, saw the aircraft trying to gain height. "The engines were really screaming. Then I saw a light bright like the sunset, then a fireball falling," he said.

From a hospital bed, Akadek Pudemha, a flight attendant, described the crash to Thai television. "The plane was circling around the airport, going up and down," Akadek said. "We figured that if we couldn't land on the third try, we would return to Bangkok. The plane was shaking the whole time and we crashed on the third try. Then the plane was on fire and I urged the passengers to jump out. They were reluctant."

Police said at least five children - four boys and a girl - survived and were taken to hospital. Television footage showed four bloodied Westerners, two men and two women, being led to a pick-up truck and driven away.

Airbus said from its headquarters in Toulouse, France, that it would send five specialists to assist Thai authorities in their investigation. It said the aircraft was delivered in 1986.

The airline released a manifest, which indicated that most of the 132 passengers on the domestic flight were Thais, but there were a score of Western and Japanese names.