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China Airlines 747 May Have Disintegrated in Flight Over Taiwan Strait - 2002-05-26

Taiwan rescue teams continue to search for victims of Saturday's China Airlines jet crash, but rough waters in the Taiwan Strait are complicating efforts. There is growing speculation about the cause of the mishap, but it appears the airliner disintegrated in midair before plunging into the sea.

Rough seas have slowed the search for victims and debris from a China Airlines passenger jet that plunged into the Taiwan Strait on a flight to Hong Kong Saturday with 225 people aboard.

Racing against encroaching darkness Sunday, planes and ships from Taiwan's air force and navy found no survivors of Flight 611 from Taipei to Hong Kong. But dozens of bodies have been recovered, along with debris from the stricken Boeing 747.

Air and sea searches have revealed a widespread area of debris floating on the sea surface.

Relatives of the passengers from Taiwan have been flown to the Penghu (Pescadore) Islands between Taiwan and China, to await news of loved ones. Some have complained the airline should have been more forthcoming with information shortly after the mishap.

Preliminary indications show that the plane had reached 10,700 meters (35,000 feet) before suddenly disappearing from radar screens, said Yong Kay, head of Taiwan's Aviation Safety Council. Mr. Yong was reluctant to speculate about what might have caused the sudden end of the flight. He indicated that Taiwan has invited personnel from the U.S. National Transportation and Safety Board to come to Taiwan and help coordinate a full investigation.

An official examining the first bodies to be recovered reported to local media no signs of burns, but plenty of evidence of a forceful impact. Debris from the aircraft, including business cards and photographs, landed as far as 75 kilometers away on Taiwan's western coastline. None of the debris found so far reveals any evidence of fire.

China Airlines, Taiwan's flagship carrier, had a series of accidents in the 1990s. In the past few years, it has been under intense pressure to resolve safety problems.

The Taiwan government is also anxious to determine the cause of the accident, following controversy about its findings regarding a Singapore Airlines crash at Taiwan's Taoyuan International Airport 18 month ago. Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian instructed government officials on Sunday to make every effort in the search for victims, and to find answers to why the plane crashed.