Relatives visit Singapore Airlines wreckage as airline increases victim compensation

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Relatives of victims of the Singapore Airlines crash mourned at the charred wreckage of the jumbo jet on Saturday as aviation experts struggled to understand how a veteran pilot could have tried taking off on a closed runway.

Relatives of victims of the Singapore Airlines crash mourned at the charred wreckage of the jumbo jet on Saturday as aviation experts struggled to understand how a veteran pilot could have tried taking off on a closed runway.

Meanwhile, the airline announced that it would give $400,000 to the families of the passengers and crew who died when Flight SQ006 burst into flames while speeding down the airstrip filled with construction equipment. The crash killed 81 out of 179 people on board.

Singapore Airlines earlier had offered $25,000 to the families of those who died and $5,000 to the injured. An airline spokeswoman said Saturday that the new $400,000 payment is separate from any earlier compensation.

"This is a very sad situation, and the airline hopes to help families through this terrible period by offering compensation without delay," the statement said.

Wearing yellow plastic rain ponchos Saturday, some of the mourners in a group of about 100 people kneeled down on the tarmac as a steady drizzle fell at Chiang Kai-shek airport. Others prayed and stared at the heaps of metal that were once part of the Boeing 747-400 headed for Los Angeles.

Investigators have said the jet crashed during a Tuesday night storm after the pilot mistakenly tried to take off on a closed runway filled with construction equipment, including concrete blocks and digging cranes.

Officials said the crash probe was continuing and might take one or two years to complete. They declined to speculate about how the pilot could have made such an error or say whether the closed runway should have been better marked.

The plane was able to enter the runway because the strip was not blocked off for the reason that it was frequently used by taxiing aircraft, said Chang Kuo-cheng, assistant director of Taiwan's Civil Aviation Administration. Closing down the entire runway would have created serious delays for planes lining up for departure, he said.

Taiwan's aviation administration had warned airlines not to use the runway in an August 31 letter and in reports given to the pilots during mandatory pre-flight briefings, Chang said. All international requirements were met in warning pilots about the runway, he said.

The pilot was supposed to take off on the runway marked with a big red sign saying "5L-23R," which was next to the closed runway, "5R-23L." The runways were also marked with an "05L" and "05R" painted on the airstrip's surface.

U.S. attorney Gerald Sterns, who specializes in representing air crash victims' families, said the airport might have been able to avoid confusion by altering the "5R-23L" sign on the repaired runway.

The San Francisco lawyer said, "The best defense is to put up a sign that says, 'Runway Closed.' It's no big deal."

He also said during big storms the control tower, which doesn't have ground radar, should use its radio to warn pilots about the closed runway to make sure they aren't using it. The "black box" cockpit recorder indicated that wasn't done with the Singapore Airlines flight.

But Chang said the airport's signs were in compliance with international regulations and the runways were properly marked.

Others have speculated that, with visibility low because of the blustery winds and driving rain, the pilot saw a "5" on the sign and an "L," while not noticing the other letters on the sign. Thinking he was on the correct runway, he took off.

But Sean Peng, a spokesman with Taiwan's Civil Aviation Administration, said that although the signs might be confusing to the untrained, pilots are accustomed to deciphering the numbering systems, which are used internationally.

"Once professionals see the signs, they'll understand them," said Peng, who was perplexed by the pilot's mistake.

Kay Yong, managing director of Taiwan's Aviation Safety Council, emphasized that it was too early to blame the crash on pilot error or describe the cause of the accident. Yong said that investigators were just laying out factual data.

However, John Findlay, general secretary of the Hong Kong Aircrew Officers Association, said Taiwanese officials were too quick to announce their findings and that it may take months or years to find out what caused the pilot's error and what was happening on the plane at the time.

"We believe they need to go about it slowly, very slowly."