TAIPEI (AFP) – Taiwan rescuers scoured a river for 12 people still missing from a TransAsia plane crash Thursday, as the pilot, who died in the crash, was hailed a hero for apparently battling to avoid hitting built-up areas.
Hundreds of rescuers in boats, as well as divers and soldiers mounted the search in the chilly waters, as the death toll rose to 31 with more bodies located including those of the pilot and co-pilot, authorities said.
The TransAsia ATR 72-600 crashed shortly after take-off from Songshan airport in Taipei Wednesday, hitting an elevated road as it banked sidelong towards the Keelung River, leaving a trail of debris including a smashed taxi.
In an operation overnight large parts of the plane’s fuselage were lifted from the river, enabling rescuers to recover bodies trapped inside, as divers Thursday battled strong currents to search downstream for more victims.
Pilot Liao Chien-tsung was applauded by aviation experts for apparently steering the turboprop plane, which had 53 passengers and five crew on board, away from populated areas and high-rise buildings, potentially avoiding more deaths and damage.
“Based on the flight path, the pilot deviated and tried to avoid obstacles. The pilot apparently made a conscious effort to avoid further and unnecessary casualties by ditching in the river. It was a very courageous move,” Hong Kong-based aviation analyst Daniel Tsang told AFP.
Emotional citizens posted their praise and condolences on social media sites.
“I believe the pilot managed to steer the plane away from high-rise buildings, he is a hero,” Gin Oy, a writer and actress, said on her Facebook page.
The Apple Daily newspaper ran a front-page story headlined thanking “the pilot for saving Taipei”.
“Pilot Liao Chien-tsung struggled to avoid high-rise buildings to find a site to crash land along Keelung river to reduce casualties. Many netizens thought the judgement he made in an instant saved numerous people on the ground,” it said.
“We are proud of him. He was very brave to avoid the buildings,” Liao’s aunt told reporters at a funeral home in Taipei.
President Ma Ying-jeou was scheduled to pay his respects to the victims at a funeral home and visit the wounded at several hospitals later Thursday, his office said.