No distress signal before Taiwan crash
TAIPEI, Taiwan (CNN) -- Aviation officials say there was no distress signal before a China Airlines passenger jet apparently broke apart in mid-flight.
The plane crashed into the Taiwan Strait on Saturday with 225 people on board.
"We are very certain the plane disintegrated while above 30,000 feet (9,144 meters)," Kay Yong, managing director of Taiwan's Aviation Safety Council, told a news conference.
Military radar provided a clear picture of the Boeing 747-200 splitting into four pieces, he said.
At least 78 bodies as well as sections of debris have been recovered from Flight CI 611, which crashed en route from Taipei to Hong Kong. Officials say they hold little hope of finding any survivors.
The plane, a 22-year-old Boeing 747-200, was carrying 19 crew members and 206 passengers when it disappeared off radar screens about 20 minutes after taking off at around 3:00 p.m. (0700 GMT) from Taiwan's Chiang Kai-shek International Airport.
Investigators have not determined a cause of the crash. Aviation officials said there was no sign of previous mechanical trouble, no sign of foul play and the weather was clear at the time of the crash.
Rough seas swelling to 3 meters (10 feet) are hindering search and recovery teams combing the waters of the crash site near the Penghu island group, also known as the Pescadores, about 50 km (30 miles) off Taiwan's west coast.
Relatives of the victims have been flown to a nearby island where a makeshift morgue has been set up.
China Airlines official Wang Cheng-yu said most of the passengers were from Taiwan but there were two from Singapore, 14 from Hong Kong, Macau or China and one from Europe.
Data recorder signals
Officials say they have picked up what could be signals from the plane's flight data recorders, which when recovered may shed some light into the cause of the crash.
Aviation authorities say the pilot had not issued any distress signals before the plane disappeared off radar screens, leading to the suggestion that disaster struck Flight CI 611 quickly.
The weather was cloudy when the plane took off, but conditions weren't extreme, authorities say.
Adding to the mystery is the fact that most of the bodies recovered have been intact and do not appear to be charred, suggesting there may not have been an explosion on board.
U.S. crash investigators from the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board have been dispatched to Taiwan to help local investigators try to determine the cause of the crash.
Terrorism ruled out
A former NTSB expert says it is significant that there was no distress signal before the plane disappeared from radar screens.
"It doesn't rule out the possibility that something else happened to the airplane and that the pilot lost control and the aircraft broke apart," Former NTSB Vice Chairman Robert Francis told CNN.
Investigators said there's no suggestion at this point that terrorism was in any way involved, and that their probe centers on mechanical or technical problems with the plane.
Speculation is rife in local media that the accident may have been caused by problems with wiring and cables due to the plane's advanced age.
The crash is also being compared with the TWA 800 disaster in 1996, when a Boeing 747 bound for Paris exploded shortly after takeoff from New York's Long Island, killing all 230 people on board.
Investigators there have concluded provisionally that an electrical spark ignited a partly empty fuel tank causing an explosion.
The China Airlines crash is the fourth fatal crash for Taiwan's leading carrier in the last decade. (Full story)
The plane was one of the oldest planes in the China Airlines fleet. The flight was supposed to have been the plane's last journey before being sold to a chartered carrier in Thailand.
China Airlines was considered one of the world's most dangerous airlines after a series of crashes in the 1990s.
In recent years, it has put more emphasis on safety.
"We feel so deeply sorry for this incident," China Airlines general manager David Fei said at a news conference. "Safety is our top priority."
The last known fatal China Airlines accident occurred in 1999 when a passenger jet flipped over and burst into flames during a crash landing in Hong Kong. Three people were killed.
-- CNN Senior Asia Correspondent Mike Chinoy contributed to this report
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