Singapore Airlines plane bound for L.A. hits object, catches fire; at least 77 dead

TAIPEI, Taiwan - A Singapore Airlines jumbo jet speeding down a runway in darkness and rain slammed into an object before takeoff for Los Angeles and burst into flames Tuesday, scattering fiery wreckage across the tarmac, witnesses said. Seventy-seven people were killed and dozens more were injured, a Taiwanese official said.

It wasn't immediately clear what Flight SQ006 hit, but the collision wreaked havoc on the plane: Video footage showed the Boeing 747-400 spewing flames and thick black smoke despite the heavy rain. Afterward, parts of the blue-and-white fuselage were badly charred, with a gaping hole in the roof of the forward section.

The pilot ''saw an object on the runway and he tried to take off to avoid the object, and he hit the object,'' airline spokesman Rick Clements said in Singapore.

There were 20 crew members and 159 passengers on board. Clements said 47 U.S. citizens and 55 Taiwanese were among the passengers.

Taiwanese civil aviation official Billy K.C. Chang declined to comment on the cause of the crash until investigators retrieved the plane's ''black boxes,'' the flight data and voice cockpit recorders.

''It felt like we bumped into something huge,'' said Doug Villermin, 33, of New Iberia, La., who was standing outside the Chang Gung Memorial Hospital, wrapped in a hospital gown and smoking a cigarette. ''It looked like the front end just fell off. From there, it just started to fall apart. I ran to the escape hatch with the stewardess but we couldn't get it open. Two feet away from me, I saw flames.

''Everyone was just panicking,'' he said. ''I tried to open the escape hatch on the top just a slit and saw a lot of smoke. The fumes were just incredible. But eventually we got it open. ... We were just all so scared it was going to blow up.''

It was Singapore Airlines' first major accident in 28 years of operation, and it came in nasty weather: A typhoon packing 90 mph winds was whirling off Taiwan's southern coast Tuesday, lashing the island with rain and prompting officials to set up disaster relief centers.

Chang said 77 people died, 54 were hospitalized and 48 suffered minor or no injuries. Earlier, Singapore Airlines Chairman Michael Fam said 66 people were killed.

Speaking in Singapore, Fam said the plane ''crashed on the runway during the takeoff.''

''We wish to express our sincere regret to all concerned,'' he said. ''This is a tragic day for all of us.''

Clements said Singapore Airlines would provide all families of victims with $25,000 immediate compensation.

''We should wait for the investigations, but the early indications are that it (the plane) did momentarily take off,'' he said.

Besides the Americans and Taiwanese, airline spokesman James Boyd in Los Angeles said there also were 11 Singaporeans on board, 11 Indians, eight Malaysians, five Indonesians, four Mexicans, four British, two each from Thailand, New Zealand and Vietnam and one each from Australia, Canada, Cambodia, Germany, Japan, Philippines, Ireland and the Canary Islands/Spain.

Villermin and two other survivors said they felt the plane slam into something on the runway while trying to take off at Taipei's Chiang Kai-shek International Airport. Airline officials said the pilot, Capt. C.K. Foong, also reported hitting an object, but no one offered an explanation of what it might have been. A China Airways official denied initial reports that the jumbo jet had hit one of its planes on the ground.

''The left wing seemed to hit something and then it was just a big roller-coaster ride,'' said survivor Steven Courtney of Britain, oxygen tubes in his nose as he was whisked away to an operating room at a nearby hospital. ''Flames were everywhere.''

The aborted takeoff occurred at 11:18 p.m. Minutes later, ambulances and rescue vehicles crowded the wet tarmac, lights flashing.

The scene was frantic at Chang Gung hospital near the airport, where emergency room workers gently lifted injured people from ambulances. Some appeared to be burned. They laid on stretchers with their arms stretched stiffly in front of their torsos.

Tonya Joy, 37, of New Zealand, was being pushed toward the operating room.

''I felt two hits and we twisted around twice,'' she said. ''I jumped out of the top and landed on the ground, so the doctors think there is something wrong with my spine. The weather was just awful. Flames came so fast on both sides of the plane.''

In Taipei, civil aviation official Chang and Singapore Airlines spokesman Mark Tsai declined to comment on whether the plane hit something or left the ground before it caught fire. They both said that they would not comment on the blaze as officials tried to determine the conditions and cause of the accident.

About a half-dozen relatives arrived Tuesday at the Los Angeles airport. They were escorted to a private room with counselors from the Red Cross to await news on the passengers, said B.V. Castillo, a Red Cross spokeswoman.

In Singapore, officials set up a crisis management center at Changi airport. A handful of relatives, some in tears, were led to the cordoned-off area by crisis workers.

In Washington, the National Transportation Safety Board said it was sending a team of investigators to help Taiwan authorities probe the disaster. The eight-member NTSB team was expected to arrive in Taiwan on Thursday evening.

Singapore Airlines, the South Asian city-state's flagship carrier, is one of the world's most profitable airlines and has one of the industry's best safety records.

The national carrier enjoys a young fleet of modern aircraft. It flies to more than 40 countries and, with its traditionally dressed stewardesses and free amenities, is consistently voted the most favored airline of business travelers.

The plane that burst into flames Tuesday was bought new in January 1997, Boyd said. He said there had been no problems with the aircraft, which underwent its last maintenance check on Sept. 16.

Clements said Foong, the Malaysian captain, joined the airline in 1979 and had 11,235 flight hours.

On Dec. 19, 1997, a SilkAir Boeing 737 was cruising over Indonesia at 35,000 feet when the jet suddenly nosed down, diving at supersonic speeds until it smashed into a river, killing all 104 people aboard. Singapore Airlines is the parent company of SilkAir.

Tuesday's incident shares some traits with the Air France Concorde disaster that killed 113 people outside Paris in July: Investigators believe the chain of events that brought the Concorde down began when the plane hit a strip of metal on the runway, bursting a tire.

The latest disaster also comes a year to the day after EgyptAir Flight 990 plunged into the Atlantic Ocean while en route from New York to Cairo. That crash killed 217 people.


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