AT LEAST 31 people were killed and 12 remain missing after a TransAsia Airways plane crashed into a river in New Taipei City shortly after taking off on Wednesday.
Taiwan's Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) said 15 people survived. Sixteen of those killed were from among a group of 31 Chinese tourists, most from the south-eastern city of Xiamen, it said. Three Chinese passengers were rescued.
The CAA added that the pilot and co-pilot of the plane were among those killed. TransAsia identified the pilot as 42-year-old Liao Chien-tsung.
Both the pilots' bodies had been recovered, TransAsia said on Thursday as sketchy details of the plane's final moments began to emerge.
The almost-new ATR-72-600 turboprop aircraft with 58 onboard was flying from Taipei to the offshore island of Kinmen when it lurched between buildings, clipped an overpass with one of its wings and crashed upside down into the shallow waters of the Keelung River at about 11am, CNA and Reuters said. The plane apparently rammed into the Nanyang Bridge elevated highway in New Taipei City, which encircles Taipei, before falling into the river, the Central News Agency (CNA) said.
The crash happened only two minutes after flight GE235 took off from Songshan Airport in Taipei at 10.52am, and was suspected to be due to insufficient propelling force, according to United Daily News (UDN) website. The aircraft's cockpit-voice recorder and flight-data recorder have been recovered for analysis.
As time ticked away for those inside the fuselage, rescue boats surrounded the wreckage which remains in the middle of the river, with 400 soldiers drafted in to help.
Emergency crews standing on sections of wreckage tried to pull passengers out of the plane with ropes. Those who were rescued were put in dinghies and taken to the shore.
By 9pm, about 10 hours after the crash, a 700-tonne crane lifted the tail of the plane ashore, leaving the other half still stuck in the riverbed. The latest death toll has hit 31, as rescuers continue to search for 12 missing victims.
Taipei City Fire Department acting commissioner Wu Chun-hong told reporters that efforts to reach the victims were slow as the passenger seats were mangled and the front section of the plane - where some of the missing victims are believed to be - is stuck in the riverbed, according to UDN.
The jet was carrying five crew members and 53 passengers.
The authorities cannot ascertain if all the missing people are still inside the plane as eyewitnesses claimed to have seen passengers being flung out of the plane as it plunged into the river.
Mr Wang Hsing-chung, an Aviation Safety Council spokesman, said the plane's black boxes have been recovered and investigators will begin reading the data on Wednesday night.
TransAsia's chief executive, Mr Peter Chen, bowed deeply at a televised news conference on Wednesday afternoon as he apologised to passengers and crew.
The pilot radioed a "Mayday, Mayday" distress call at 10.54am but did not respond when air traffic controllers answered, the Civil Aeronautics Administration said at a press conference on Wednesday afternoon.
A CNN report said the pilot can be heard saying, "GE235. Mayday, mayday. Engine flameout," according to a recording verified by LiveATC.net, which records air traffic control feeds.
The pilot lost contact with the ground within four minutes, Mr Chen said.
Eyewitness on the ground was cited as saying the aircraft was flying "almost 90 degrees on its side" and going increasingly lower until it hit the highway bridge and crashed into the river.
CNA posted on its website dramatic photos of the plane hitting the highway, as a taxi on the highway apparently swerved to avoid being hit.
Footage taken from a dashboard-mounted camera in a car showed the plane's wings tilted at a steep angle as it swerved over a bridge, with one tip clipping a taxi and the railing before plunging into the Keelung River.
The taxi driver and his passenger were slightly hurt in the crash and have been hospitalised for observation, the report said.
The weather appeared to be clear when the plane took off. Television pictures also showed some damage to a bridge next to the river, with small pieces of the aircraft scattered along the road.
In a statement issued by TransAsia on Wednesday afternoon, the airline said four children are among those injured and currently receiving treatment at hospitals. Among the 31 Chinese passengers, three are children. All remaining people on the plane, including three pilots and two flight attendants, are locals.
The statement added that the damaged plane, the ATR-72-600, was delivered to TransAsia just last April. It was last serviced only a week ago on Jan 26.
TransAsia, a privately-owned airline founded in 1951, suffered a serious crash last July when flight GE222 crashed near the airport at Magong on the Penghu island chain during a rainstorm, killing 48 people and injuring 10 others. That aircraft was also an ATR-72.
The Singapore Trade Office in Taipei said on Wednesday it is "shocked and deeply saddened" by the crash of flight GE235.
"We have contacted TransAsia and confirmed that no Singaporeans were on board," it said in a statement.
TransAsia is Taiwan's third-largest carrier. The plane involved in Wednesday's mishap was among the first of the ATR 72-600s, the latest variant of the turboprop aircraft, that TransAsia received in 2014.
They are among an order of eight placed by TransAsia in 2012. The aircraft have 72 seats each. The planes are mainly used to connect Taiwan's capital, Taipei, to the island's smaller cities.
The airline also operates Airbus A320 and A330 planes on domestic and international services.
ATR is a joint venture between Airbus and Alenia Aermacchi, a subsidiary of Italy's Finmeccanica services.
With input from Reuters and Agence France-Presse