South Korea crash claims 127 lives in first fatal disaster for 'safest' airline

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The Independent Online

Air China, one of the world's safest airlines, suffered its first fatal accident yesterday when one of its passenger jets crashed into a hill in South Korea, killing most of those on board.

The Boeing 767, on a flight from Beijing, disintegrated and caught fire after going down on its approach to the southern city of Pusan yesterday morning. By last night, 39 of the 166 passengers and crew were reported to have survived.

The accident happened in rain and thick fog on a forested 1,500ft hill near the airport, and perilously close to several blocks of flats.

"The plane is broken into pieces, and there are dead bodies everywhere," said a bystander, Park Byung-min.

Despite the proximity of the buildings, no one on the ground was reported to have been killed or injured. Dead and injured passengers were carried by stretcher and on piggyback from the site, which was inaccessible to helicopters and ambulances. Oh Kang-seak, a hospital worker, said after visiting the scene: "It was a total mess. It is steep even for walking, although the mountain is not so high."

Passengers reported that the impact came just after an instruction to them to buckle their seat belts at about 11.20am. "The plane crashed with a roaring sound," Kim Mun-hak, 35, said. "I managed to get out from the plane, and I saw thick smoke and flames." An elderly lady said: "I felt dizzy while I was in the plane and bowed my head, so I don't know what happened. I didn't hear anything."

At least one of the plane's safety recorders had been recovered last night and, although the cause of the accident had not yet been determined, the weather seems to have been a factor.

As the jet neared the airport, Pusan air traffic control had reportedly asked the pilot to approach the runway from the opposite direction because of a strong headwind. The plane crashed into the hill while circling to the other side.

Choo Byuung-jik, a South Korean transport minister, said the wind was too blame. "The Chinese plane was to have landed at the airport but due to strong head winds blowing it off course, it had to fly in the opposite direction and crashed while turning around," he said.

The passengers were mostly Koreans, with 19 Chinese and one Uzbek, as well as the 11 Chinese crew, according to China's Civil Aviation Administration. It appeared that the plane had crashed tail first, and that most of those who survived were in the front of the aircraft.

China's domestic airlines have a poor reputation for safety, but Air China, the country's principal international carrier, had had a spotless record. In 47 years of flying and more than 2.72 million hours, it had never lost a passenger.

The country's senior leadership uses Air China for international visits.

The average age of the planes in its fleets is two years old, although the 767-200 in yesterday's crash was 17 years old, middle-aged for such an airliner.

The Chinese government has been planning to privatise the publicly owned airline and then float it on the New York and London stock exchanges later this year.

The crash came six weeks before the World Cup finals are due to be co-hosted by South Korea and Japan. Tens of thousands of fans from around the world are expected.