Taiwan, Nov. 4, 2000 -- Singapore Airlines said Friday it accepted full responsibility for a crash in Taiwan that killed 81 people, saying pilot error led the Boeing 747-400 down the wrong runway.
“They are our pilots. That was our aircraft. The aircraftshould not be on that runway. We accept full responsibility,” said Singapore Airlines chief executive and deputy chairman Cheong Choong Kong at a news conference Friday.
The announcement came after Yong Kay, Taiwan’s Aviation Safety Council managing director, said the jumbo jet’s pilot knew that he was on the wrong runway when he started to take off. Yong said when the pilot realized — at the last moment — that he was on a strip closed for repairs, he tried to lift off, but instead plowed into construction equipment.
Yong said the information came from the aircraft’s black box recordings.
In a specific account of what happened during the crash, investigators said the plane slammed into a concrete barrier and construction equipment before exploding in a fireball.
Investigators believe the plane first slammed into theconcrete barrier, one meter high by about a meter and a halfwide, which marked the beginning of the construction zone. Senior Taoyuan county prosecutor Song Kuo-yeh said theplane also struck two pieces of construction equipment. “According to factual data, this Singapore Airlines planeused runway 5 Right to take off... This means it went down the wrong runway,” Kay said.
The plane was supposed to take off from runway 5 Left, and had received clearance to depart from 5 Left.
The pilot repeated the correct clearance to the control tower, sources said.
Five Left runs parallel to 5 Right, where most of the debris from the plane was found. A distance of 800 feet separates the two runways.
In a live interview with ETTV cable TV news, Soong said the plane crashed after hitting two cranes being used to repair the closed runway during the day.
“From the crash scene, it’s very easy to see that the plane had mistakenly used the wrong runway where there were scraps of steel and two construction cranes,” said Song.
The Taipei Times quoted a report from Wednesday’s Chinese-language Liberty Times that said pilots on two planes behind the ill-fated Singapore Airlines jet saw the jumbo jet turn on to the 5 Right runway.
Sources Thursday also told ABCNEWS there was no indication of debris between the runways and no skid marks on the correct runway.
Investigators are also trying to establish whether the runway lights were wrongly configured, or whether stormy conditions stopped the pilot from seeing where he was.
A warning light in front of the construction site was onthat night, but the pilots might not have been able to see the signal, said Billy Chang, deputy director general of Civil Aeronautics Administration.
Visibility was reduced to 500 to 600 meters, so the pilots would not have been able to see the construction equipment, more than 1,000 meters away, Yong said.
Center lights, running the length of the two runways, were on, said Yong. But investigators had yet to determine whether the “edge lights,” running along the sides of the closed 5R runway, were on or off, he said.
Both edge lights and center lights must be on to signal an active runway, investigators said.
Chang said it should normally be very easy for a pilot todistinguish the correct runway, because the center lights of the closed runway were green, while those on the main runway were white.
Singapore Airlines’ Cheong said Friday the airline would conduct its own investigation into Tuesday’s crash but would not make any conclusions at this stage.
The most important issue, he said, was to determine the cause of the error and to look at every possible contributing factor and to take a hard look at safety standards at airports.
“It was obviously a pilot error. There was a human factor involved,” Cheong said. “We should also look at safety features at airports.”
The captain and two first officers of flight SQ 006 havebeen barred temporarily from leaving Taiwan, senior Taoyuan county prosecutor Song Kuo-yeh told reporters Friday.
Taoyuan is the district where the airport is located.
The Boeing 747-400 was taking off in a typhoon on Tuesday from Taipei’s Chiang Kai-Shek International Airport when the crash occurred. Ninety-eight people survived; 16 of them were unhurt.
The majority of the 159 passengers were Taiwanese (55) and U.S. citizens (47). Other passengers included 11 Singaporeans, 11 Indians and eight Malaysians, among others.
According to the cockpit voice recording (See sidebar, below), the pilot was cleared for takeoff at 18 secondsafter 11.15 p.m. local time.
About a minute later, he said: “We can see the runway, not so bad,” and then the aircraft proceeded to take off.
Twelve seconds after 11.17 p.m., the captain shouted:“Shit! Something there.”
One second later there was a bang and a series of crashes, and then the recording went silent, Yong said.
Investigators believe the plane first slammed into theconcrete barrier, which marked the beginning of the construction zone. Song said the plane also struck construction equipment.
Investigators said the runway had not been used for takeoff in years and they were trying to determine why the plane ended up there. Yong said airlines had been notified of the repair work in September.
Most often , when a runway is closed, airport officials put up barricades, so that planes cannot even turn on that runway. That, apparently, was not the case at Chiang Kai-Shek because they were using part of the runway at times for a taxiway, so they had left access to the runway open.
Chiang Kai-Shek International Airport is not equipped with ground radar so the tower could not have checked if the plane was on the intended runway. Visibility was too low to see the jet from the tower, Yong said.
This lends credence to the allegation that it wasn’t bad directions from the tower, but pilot error that caused the problems.
Relatives of some crash victims held funeral services Friday and others arrived or were en route from abroad to try to identify their dead loved ones. Bodies have been shifted from a makeshift morgue at an old terminal at Taipei international airport, to a funeral parlor.
Grieving family members have lashed out at the airline for its handling of the crash aftermath, interrupting news conferences by the carrier to criticize executives for leaving them in the dark too long about who was dead or alive.
Analysts said Singapore Airlines might face personal andproperty damage liabilities of more than $130 million over the crash. But its exposure could rise if pilot error was determined.
ABCNEWS’ Lisa Stark in New York, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.