MANILA, Philippines – Investigators focused on possible engine failure after a twin-engine commuter airplane carrying 34 people, including tourists from Australia and Britain, crashed into Manila Bay minutes after takeoff early Monday.
At least 14 of those aboard the 44-seat Fokker 27 were killed and 16 survived after being plucked from the murky water, said Alvin Manual Yater, assistant vice president of Laoag International Airlines, a small domestic airline.
With four people still missing, hopes for finding more survivors all but vanished as the sun set on a frantic search that included fishing boats, helicopters and coast guard and navy vessels.
The plane broke apart and sank in about 50-60 feet of water. Divers were hampered by the mud churned up by the wreckage, part of which was raised using a floating crane.
At least six Australians were on board, and the Australian Embassy said it had been able to confirm only one survivor, Steve Thompson, 25, of Sydney, who was described as "in deep shock." Of the five who were unaccounted for, four were from Sydney and one from Brisbane. Their names were not released.
Three British citizens also were on board.
In line with amateur video of the stricken plane on its way down, Thompson said he saw smoke coming from the left engine just before the pilot came on the intercom to tell passengers to brace for impact. He said he arrived in the Philippines on Sunday night and was flying with five Australian friends to the northern city of Laoag for a surfing vacation in nearby Badoc.
"The plane took off. It flew for three minutes, and then the engine kind of got quiet," said Thompson, who was wearing a white T-shirt and shorts, and had bandages on his toes and left arm during an interview at the navy's bayside headquarters.
"Then I noticed some smoke coming out of the left engine, and then it banked. Then we ended up down in the water," Thompson said.
Asked if the passengers panicked, Thompson said: "The cabin instantly filled with water, so no one made any noises."
Saying he didn't know what happened to his friends, he began weeping as he spoke with his mother by telephone.
Flight attendant Adhika Espinosa was quoted by a radio station as telling President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who visited some of the hospitalized survivors, that things happened so fast, some passengers were apparently still sleeping when the crash occurred. Navy officials said some of the victims, including a young boy, were found still strapped in their seats.
"The flight attendants were demonstrating what to do in case of an emergency when we felt the plane descend," survivor Tessie Bugarin, 56, told ABS-CBN television. "I thought the plane would just make an emergency landing, but it plunged. Suddenly there was water all over."
Yater said Flight 585 took off 6:06 a.m. from Manila's domestic airport, lost contact with the control tower three minutes later and crashed while on a regularly scheduled flight to Laoag, about an hour's trip from Manila.
He initially said there had been no distress call, but later corrected that, saying the pilots had been aiming for a stretch of reclaimed land before going down in the water.
Joggers who were running along the bay said the plane sounded like it was having engine trouble as it tried to gain altitude.
"After going airborne, it ditched," said Adelberto Yap, chief of air transportation for the Philippines. "We don't know if it lost power."
Only small debris, including at least one seat, was strewn on the surface.
The survivors included the pilot, Capt. Bernie Crisostomo, co-pilot Joseph Gardiner and Roman Catholic Bishop Jose P. Salazar, all Filipinos. Three people were hospitalized intensive care, while others walked away from minor cuts and bruises.
The airline's other four Fokker 27 planes were grounded as a precaution, Yap said.