TAIPEI, Taiwan - Families of Singapore Airlines crash victims began arriving in Taiwan early Thursday to retrieve their loved ones' bodies as officials tried to determine what caused the plane to burst into flames during takeoff, killing 81 people - at least 23 of them Americans.
Survivors said they felt Flight SQ006 hit something as the plane barreled down the runway. But as emergency workers pulled bodies from the charred, blue-and-tan wreckage Wednesday, early speculation also pointed to wind as a possible factor in the Boeing 747-400's accident: At the time of takeoff, the airport was being lashed by the swirling gusts and torrential rains of an approaching typhoon.
Some relatives of those who died have blamed the pilot, Capt. C.K. Foong. On Wednesday, one woman pounded the counter at a Singapore Airlines ticket counter in Taipei and shouted at the company's employees, ''How could you take off in this weather?''
But the airline - which had not had a major accident in 28 years of operation - defended Foong's decision.
''Conditions were well within safe operational limits,'' company spokesman Rick Clements told reporters in Singapore. He noted that a flight by Taiwan's China Airlines took off just 15 minutes before Singapore Airlines' takeoff.
Taiwanese aviation official Billy K.C. Chang said Tuesday night's visibility levels of 1,650-1,980 feet at Chiang Kai-shek International Airport exceeded the minimum requirement of 660 feet needed for takeoff. Measuring safe wind speeds is more complicated, but the gusty winds were not excessive, he said.
In general, control towers in Taiwan monitor wind speed and direction, visibility, air traffic and other factors before authorizing takeoffs, especially during storms such as typhoons. It is then up to the pilot to decide whether to go ahead with the takeoff or to abort it if unexpected problems develop on the runway.
As investigators probed and victims' loved ones hurled accusations amid their tears, medical workers tried to identify the bodies, many of which were badly burned.
Most of the corpses were stored in body bags in an old terminal at the airport. Lined up in neat rows, the 70 or so bodies were laid next to caskets of honey pine and dark cherry wood. DNA tests were expected to be completed Thursday.
As Taiwanese guards stood at attention near the caskets, dozens of local Buddhists walked slowly around the area early Thursday, chanting and ringing a bell to honor the dead. Outside, volunteers made soup for the relatives of the victims, but none had arrived yet to inspect the bodies.
In addition to the 81 people who died in the accident, 40 were hospitalized and 58 suffered minor injuries or escaped unhurt, said Taiwan civil aviation officials.
Forty-seven of those aboard were Americans, and on Wednesday President Clinton offered condolences to people who lost family members and friends in the crash.
''It's too early to know the cause of the accident, but the United States is helping Taiwan authorities to find the answers'' by sending investigators to Taipei, Clinton said in Washington.
Within hours after the crash, many victims' relatives were rushing to Los Angeles International Airport looking for flights to Taiwan. Ten flew out of Los Angeles aboard a Malaysian flight and arrived in Taipei early Thursday.
Fifty-five more Americans were to leave late Wednesday aboard a Singapore Airlines plane, airline spokesman James Boyd said, and relatives of victims from Singapore and New Zealand began arriving in Taipei earlier in the day.
Officials still didn't know what Flight SQ006 might have hit as it tried to take off, but the damage was spectacular: Huge tongues of flames lit up the rainy night sky as the plane broke into three pieces. Afterward, parts of the fuselage were badly charred.
Foong - who survived the crash - ''saw an object on the runway and he tried to take off to avoid the object, and he hit the object,'' said Clements, who wouldn't speculate about what the plane might have struck.
Chou Kuang-tsan of the Aviation Safety Council, which investigates Taiwanese air accidents, said the plane apparently swerved off its runway and onto a spare runway that was under repair. Chou said it was not clear why the plane would have done that.
The airline said there was no evidence that the plane was using the wrong runway. The plane's debris flew across the two adjacent runways upon impact, which might have led to the speculation about the plane being in the wrong place, Clements said.
Chou said he will begin analyzing the plane's ''black boxes,'' or flight data and voice cockpit recorders, on Thursday. ''We still can't rule out any possibilities,'' he told reporters.
Theories about the crash abounded in Taiwan's media. Local TV stations suggested the pilot might have tried to take off from the wrong runway and slammed into construction equipment near the strip. TV reports showed a damaged crane near the accident site. Others speculated that strong winds blew construction debris into the path of the plane.
The accident was the first major one for Singapore Airlines, consistently voted the most favored airline of business travelers. The plane that burst into flames Tuesday was bought new in January 1997, had had no problems and had undergone a maintenance check on Sept. 16, airline officials said.
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