Stormy weather trailing behind a typhoon was the likely cause of a plane crash on a Taiwanese island that killed 48 people on board and injured 10 on the plane and five on the ground, the airline said Thursday.
The ATR-72 operated by Taiwan's TransAsia Airways was carrying 58 passengers and crew when it crashed while trying to land in the Penghu island chain in the Taiwan Strait between Taiwan and China late Wednesday. The plane was flying from the city of Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan.
The victims included 46 Taiwanese and two French medical students who were interns in Taiwan. None of the four crew members survived.
In the village of Xixi, where the plane came down, disaster crews dug in silence through the dusty, ashen rubble of the aircraft cabin and parts of the eight stone houses destroyed in the crash.
Just meters (yards) from the wreckage, about a dozen relatives of victims took turns in groups performing funeral rituals led by a Taoist priest in white and yellow robes.
The relatives wailed in grief and held photographs of the victims as the priest rang a bell and waved a white strip of cloth tied to a bamboo pole - a ritual believed to help the souls of the deceased find their way in the netherworld.
The crash came hours after Typhoon Matmo passed over Taiwan. About 200 flights at Taiwanese airports had been canceled earlier in the day due to rain and high winds. Taiwan's Central Weather Bureau had warned of heavy rains Wednesday evening even after Matmo moved west into China.
"According to what we can understand so far, this was due to weather, the influence of the typhoon," a TransAsia representative, Phoebe Lu, told The Associated Press. She said the carrier was waiting for Taiwanese authorities to complete an investigation to get confirmation.
A spokesman for Taiwan's air regulator, the Civil Aeronautics Administration, noted the bad weather but said an investigation still was under way.
"Even though there was bad weather, whether to land or not was up to the pilots. It is confirmed that before landing, the pilots circled, but the cause is yet to be determined," the spokesman, Lee Wan-lee, told reporters.
Local television showed relatives of victims, including one woman who lost three daughters.
One victim, firefighter Lee Ming-tsun, 47, was found in the wreckage by his own co-workers, the government's Central News Agency reported.
The plane's captain, who had 22 years of flying experience, was planning to retire soon, his daughter told a local television station from the city of Tainan.
Co-pilot Chiang Kuan-hsing's mother, holding back tears on television, said: "He had reached the goal he wanted" in his career. "When he went to another place, we'd always wish him well."
The airline identified the French passengers as Jeromine Deramond and Penelope Luternauer. They were medical school interns at Taipei's National Taiwan University, the university said.
The crash of Flight GE222 was Taiwan's first fatal air accident in 12 years.
Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou called for one minute of silence in memory of the victims. "I think that like a lot of citizens, last night I felt very sorrowful," he said in comments broadcast on television.
The airline said one of the injured 10 survivors had gone home and five local residents who were hurt on the ground were treated and released.
Penghu, a scenic chain of 64 islets, is a popular tourist site about 150 kilometers (90 miles) southwest of the Taiwanese capital, Taipei.
The 14-year-old plane lost contact with the tower after saying it would make a second landing attempt, according to Jean Shen, the head of Taiwan's air regulator, the Civil Aeronautics Administration.
Visibility as the plane approached was 1,600 meters (one mile), which met standards for landing, and two flights had landed shortly before GE222, the aviation agency said.
The Central News Agency, citing the county fire department, said it appeared heavy rain reduced visibility and the pilot was forced to pull up and attempt a second landing.
The plane showed no defects and there was ample visibility to land safely, said Lee, the air agency spokesman.
Taiwan's last major aviation disaster was also near Penghu. In 2002, a China Airlines Boeing 747 broke apart in midair and crashed into the Taiwan Strait, killing all 225 people aboard.