Crash Victims’ Relatives Turn Wrath on Airlines

ByABC News

T A I P E I, Taiwan, Nov. 2, 2000 -- Grieving relatives of victims in the Singapore Airlines jet crash in Taiwan are accusing the airline of withholding information about the disaster.

The crash killed at least 81 of the 179 people on board.

The Los Angeles-bound flight, SQ006, was taking off from Chiang Kai-shek International Airport outside of Taipei on Tuesday night in a fierce storm when it apparently hit an object on the runway and burst into flames. “Everyone here knows who the dead are but we were still crying back in Singapore and up till now, we know nothing. You owe us an explanation!” a Singaporean woman shouted at Cheong Choong Kong, SIA chief executive officer and deputy chairman, in Taipei today.

“Nobody knows anything, we were just there at the airport[in Singapore], crying, crying, crying!” she cried.

Two dozen family members from Singapore arrived in Taipei on Wednesday night to try to identify relatives, whose bodies lay in a makeshift morgue in an unused flight terminal. Many bodies were burnt beyond recognition.

Angry Relatives Want Answers

Singapore Airlines, one of Asia’s most profitable and cash-rich carriers, has been facing a storm of criticism from family members of the victims in their first crash in its 28-year history.

At a news conference in Singapore today, a visibly shaken Cheong said the airline was in a difficult position. “There is a need for information and the need for accuracy and also the need to be considerate to the feelings of the people concerned ... we were in a difficult position,” he said.

But Tan Yin Leong, whose brother Tan Yip Thong died in the crash, was not impressed. “Tell the press the true story,” he said. “Don’t hide any more,” said

“Are people’s lives more important or SIA’s reputation?” anupset Tan said as his daughter stood behind him, weeping.

Singapore Airlines spokesman Rick Clements, who said details of the probe would come from investigators in Taiwan, adjourned the news conference.

Security was tightened around the briefing room and asubsequent session was restricted to media.

Black Box Clues?

Meanwhile, investigators have begun to examine the two “black box” flight recorders which were recovered from the wreckage on Wednesday.

The international team of investigators, which includes an eight-member National Transportation Safety Board team, will look into possible causes of the crash, including a report that the jetliner hit something, perhaps a tire, on the runway as it was taking off.

Taiwan transportation officials said two injured passengers had died in hospital to push the death toll from Tuesday night’s crash to 81, most of them Taiwanese or American. Another 82 people were injured and 16 were unhurt.

Sources say the plane’s pilot, C. K. Foong of Malaysia, who survived the crash, reported he saw something in his path and tried to take off to avoid it.

Survivors of the accident reported that the plane had started to take off in stormy weather, with winds reaching 90 mph and heavy rain, when the left wing appeared to hit an object and catch fire.

These accounts seem to lend credibility to the theory that the jetliner hit something, perhaps a tire, on the runway as it was taking off.

Airline Defends Pilot

Singapore Airlines has defended its pilot’s decision to take off in heavy wind and rain, saying he did not endanger the lives of the people aboard the Boeing 747-400.

At the time of the disaster, Chiang Kai-shek International Airport was being lashed by nighttime rains from Typhoon Xangsane, which was approaching the island.

But wind speeds and visibility levels did not exceed the maximum limits for closing the airport, Taiwanese civil aviation official Billy K.C. Chang said.

The minimum visibility allowed is 200 yards, and the Singapore Airlines flight had visibility between 500-600 yards, Chang said. Acceptable wind speeds for that type of plane were not immediately available.

Singapore Airlines spokesman Rick Clements told reporters in Singapore that other planes were taking off at the time and that Foong was a seasoned pilot. “He wouldn’t be allowed to take off if the weather conditions were very bad,” he said of the pilot.

In general, control towers in Taiwan monitor wind speed, visibility, air traffic and other factors before authorizing a takeoff, especially during storms. It is then up to the pilot to decide whether to take off or even to abort a takeoff if problems develop.

Something in the Runway?

The investigation is most likely to turn towards theories that the plane apparently swerved off its runway and onto a spare runway that was being repaired. ABCNEWS’ aviation expert John Nance told Good Morning America that there have been precedents such as this in aviation history. “If the captain, as he said, apparently saw something on the runway and tried to pull the aircraft up prematurely, he might have been trying to leap over that object. But he got into the air with too little flying speed. His return to the runway could have been very, very heavy.”

It is the second major airplane disaster this year being linked to runway debris. In July, an Air France Concorde crashed outside Paris, killing 113. Investigators believe the chain of events that brought the Concorde down began when the plane hit a strip of metal on the runway, bursting a tire.

Foreign object damage has been called the No. 1 aviation safety problem in the United States. Airports police runways and try to keep them clear. Even more of a potential problem comes with runway incursions, where a plane or vehicle mistakenly crosses the path of a plane entering or leaving the runway. The problem is expected to get worse as airports get more crowded.

The airline has set up a U.S. hotline for relatives seeking information about the crash. The toll-free number is 1-800-828-0508. It also has information on its Web site, www.singaporeair.com.

ABCNEWS’ Lisa Stark and Rebecca Cooper, ABCNEWS Radio, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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