Korea fears crash will keep fans from World Cup

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The South Korean President, Kim Dae Jung, yesterday promised a full inquiry into the crash of a Chinese passenger jet, amid fears that the tragedy might scare away football fans from this summer's World Cup.

"From now, the World Cup is this cabinet's first concern," Mr Kim told ministers, a day after the Air China plane hit a hillside near the city of Pusan, killing 127 people. "I am concerned this accident could have an impact on the World Cup."

Pusan will host three of the games in the first round of the tournament, jointly held by South Korea and Japan. "With only 45 days left, we must thoroughly prepare," Mr Kim said. "The important thing is a full inquiry into the cause."

The number of survivors fell to 38 yesterday after several died. More than 2,000 volunteers, firefighters and police with dogs were searching in rain for three passengers unaccounted for.

Only three bodies have been positively identified so far. "Conditions of the [others] are gruesome," Lee Won Bok, a state prosecutor, said. Of the remains that cannot be identified by seat number, most will undergo DNA testing.

Remarkably, a quarter of the people on the plane from Beijing survived, mainly in the front section. The pilot appears to have realised he was about to crash and pulled up the nose, causing the rear section to strike the ground first.

Survivors gave fearful accounts, one telling how he fell unconscious and woke to find himself hanging from tree branches. A South korean professor, Lee Kang Dae, even called a friend on his mobile phone to warn of the impending accident.

The captain, 31-year-old Wu Xing Lu, is conscious but has serious head and face injuries. South Korean newspapers reported he had landed at Kimhae airport only five times, and had only 6,386 hours of flight time – too few, reports suggested, to pilot international flights.

The Boeing 767's cockpit voice and data recorders are being analysed, but South Korean officials and media blame the Chinese captain. The plane crashed amid fog, rain and wind but there is no sign of mechanical failure. Exchanges between the plane and the control tower revealed nothing unusual.

"We believe this is a classic case of CFIT [controlled flight into terrain]," said Ham Dae Young, a South Korean government air traffic director. "Ninety-five per cent of CFIT cases are due to pilot error."