TAIPEI – A TransAsia Airways plane with 58 passengers and crew on board crashed into a river shortly after taking off from a downtown Taipei airport on Wednesday, killing at least 16 people and leaving about a dozen missing, officials said.
As many as 28 people appeared to have survived, clambering onto the submerged wreckage after the plane lurched between buildings, clipped an overpass with its port-side wing and crashed upside down in the shallow river.
Dramatic pictures taken by a motorist and posted on Twitter showed the plane cartwheeling over the motorway soon after the turboprop ATR 72-600 aircraft took off in apparently clear weather on a domestic flight for the island of Kinmen.
“I’ve never seen anything like this. This is unprecedented,” a volunteer rescuer surnamed Chen said of the most recent in a series of disasters to hit Asian carriers in the past 12 months.
Television footage showed survivors wearing life jackets wading and swimming clear of wreckage. Others, including a young child, were taken to shore by rescuers.
Emergency rescue officials in inflatable boats crowded around the partially submerged fuselage of flight GE235, lying on its side in the river, trying to help those on board.
Wu Chunhong, acting director of the Taipei City Fire Department, told reporters 16 people had been killed. That left 14 still unaccounted for.
Other officials said 31 tourists from China were onboard.
The plane appeared to miss apartment buildings by meters. Footage showed a van skidding to a halt on the damaged overpass after barely missing the plane’s wing, with small pieces of the aircraft scattered along the road.
The chief executive of TransAsia, Chen Xinde, bowed deeply at a televised news conference as he apologized to passengers and crew.
The last communication from one of the aircraft’s pilots was “Mayday, Mayday, engine flameout,” according to an air traffic control recording on liveatc.net.
The plane was powered by two Pratt & Whitney PW127M engines. Pratt & Whitney is part of United Technologies.
A flameout occurs when the fuel supply to the engine is interrupted or when there is faulty combustion, resulting in an engine failure. Twin-engined aircraft, however, are usually able to keep flying even when one engine has failed.
The head of Taiwan’s civil aviation authority, Lin Tyh-ming, said the aircraft last underwent maintenance on Jan. 26. The pilot had 4,916 hours of flying hours under his belt and the co-pilot had 6,922 hours, he said.
Taipei’s downtown Songshan airport, the smaller of Taiwan’s two major airports, provides mostly domestic flights but also connections to Japan, China and South Korea.
A statement from China’s Taiwan Affairs Office said 31 one of those on board were tourists from the southeastern city of Xiamen, which lies close to Taiwan’s Kinmen island.
The crash is the latest in a string of mishaps to hit Asian carriers in the past 12 months. An AirAsia jet bound for Singapore crashed soon after taking off from the Indonesian city of Surabaya on Dec. 28, killing all 162 people on board.
Also last year, a Malaysia Airlines jet disappeared and one of its sister planes was downed over Ukraine with a combined loss of 537 lives.
TransAsia is Taiwan’s third-largest carrier. One of its ATR 72-500 planes crashed while trying to land at Penghu Island last July, killing 48 of the 58 passengers and crew on board.
Taiwan has had a poor aviation safety record in recent years. A China Airlines Boeing 747 broke up on a flight from Taipei to Hong Kong in 2002, killing 225. In 1998, a China Airlines Airbus A300 crashed while trying to land at Taipei’s main international airport, killing 196.
In 2000, a Singapore Airlines jetliner taking off for Los Angeles during a storm hit construction equipment on the runway, killing dozens.
The plane involved in Wednesday’s mishap was among the first of the ATR 72-600s, the latest variant of the turboprop aircraft, that TransAsia received in 2014 as part of an order of eight aircraft two years earlier.
The 72-seat aircraft are mainly used to connect the capital, Taipei, with smaller cities and islands.
ATR is a joint venture between Airbus and Alenia Aermacchi, a subsidiary of Italy’s Finmeccanica.
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