At least 31 people were killed Wednesday after a Taiwanese flight with 58 people on board turned onto its side shortly after takeoff, clipped a bridge and crashed into a river in the island's capital of Taipei.
The crash was captured in a dramatic video by a driver who was traveling along Taiwan's busy National Freeway No. 1.
The death toll in the crash of TransAsia Airways Flight GE235 rose to 31 on Thursday morning as rescue crews cleared the mostly sunken fuselage in the Keelung River. Teams in rubber rafts clustered around the wreckage, several dozen yards from the shore. Taiwan's Civil Aeronautics Administration said 31 people were confirmed dead, 15 were rescued with injuries and 12 were still missing. It said two people on the ground were hurt.
The French-Italian-built ATR 72-600 prop aircraft pivoted onto its side with one wing scraping past National Freeway No. 1 just before it plunged into the river, local television images showed. The plane's wing hit a taxi on the freeway, and the driver and a passenger were injured, TransAsia director Peter Chen said. Rescuers later used a crane to hoist the plane out of the river.
Taiwanese broadcasters repeatedly played a recording of the plane's final contact with the control tower in which the pilot called out "Mayday" three times. The recording offered no direct clues as to why the plane was in distress.
Civil aviation officials said the flight took off at 11:35 a.m. local time (10:35 p.m. ET Tuesday) from Taipei's downtown Sungshan Airport en route to the outlying Taiwanese-controlled Kinmen islands. The pilot issued a mayday call shortly after takeoff, and contact was lost four minutes later.
Chen said that weather conditions were suitable for flying and the cause of the accident was unknown.
"Actually, this aircraft in the accident was the newest model. It hadn't been used for even a year," he told a news conference.
Lin Chih-ming of the Taiwan Civil Aeronautics Administration said the pilot had 4,900 hours of flying experience.
Greg Waldron, Asia managing editor at Flightglobal magazine in Singapore, told The Associated Press that the ATR 72-600 is the latest iteration of one of the most popular turboprop planes in the world, particularly favored for regional short-hop flights in Asia.
While it's too early to say what caused the crash, engine trouble or weight shifting were unlikely to be causes, Waldron said. Other possible factors include pilot error, weather or freak incidents such as bird strikes.
"It's too early now to speculate on whether it was an issue with the aircraft or crew," Waldron said.
The accessibility of the crash site should allow for a swift investigation, and an initial report should be available within about a month, Waldron said.
Wu Jun-hong, a Taipei Fire Department official who was coordinating the rescue, said the missing people were either still in the fuselage or had been pulled down river.
"At the moment, things don't look too optimistic," Wu told reporters at the scene. "Those in the front of the plane are likely to have lost their lives."
Rescuers were pulling luggage from an open plane door to clear the fuselage.
As a drizzle fell around nightfall, military crews took portable bridges to the scene, where rescue workers were building docks for easier access to the wreckage. About 300 rescue personnel and members of the media stood along the banks of the narrow river.
Part of the freeway above it was littered with debris and was closed after the crash.
Relatives of the victims had not reached the scene by dusk Wednesda, but some were expected to arrive Thursday, including some flying from Beijing.
Another ATR 72 operated by the same Taipei-based airline crashed in the outlying Taiwan-controlled islands of Penghu last July 23, killing 48 at the end of a typhoon for reasons that are still under investigation.
ATR, a French-Italian consortium based in Toulouse, France, said it was sending a team to Taiwan to help in the investigation.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.