SAN HLAN (Myanmar) • Hundreds of people gathered on a beach in southern Myanmar yesterday desperately waiting for news of their loved ones as the first bodies arrived from the wreck of a military plane that crashed with more than 120 people on board.
Navy ships and air force planes have been scouring the waves since Wednesday afternoon, when the aircraft disappeared en route from the southern city of Myeik to the commercial hub of Yangon.
By mid-afternoon yesterday, the commander-in-chief's office said 29 corpses - 20 women, one man and eight children - had been retrieved from the sea after a navy vessel discovered wreckage from the plane off the Launglon coastline near Dawei town.
Hundreds of locals, relatives and non-government organisation (NGO) workers clasping umbrellas watched as a fishing boat laden with the dead pulled up to San Hlan beach, where they were unloaded by NGO workers and uniformed soldiers wearing masks and gloves.
An AFP reporter counted 29 corpses of different sizes, wrapped in black and white plastic bags, being brought onshore from the boat.
"My cousin's sister's family was in the plane crash - her husband, her child and herself," said Mr Kyaw Swar Myint, 44, from Dawei.
"We heard news that the helicopter was now transporting about 20 dead bodies to the beach, so we are waiting here."
A military officer said strong currents has made it hard for boats to reach the shore, so many of the bodies may have to be airlifted to land.
The Chinese-made Shaanxi Y-8 plane was carrying 122 people when it disappeared on Wednesday afternoon during a routine flight, according to the army chief.
More than half of the passengers were from military families, including 15 children, along with 35 soldiers and 14 crew members, the army chief's office said in a statement.
Some were travelling for medical check-ups or to study in Yangon.
It is monsoon season in Myanmar, but there were no major storms reported along the aircraft's flight path on Wednesday.
The military said the plane was flying at over 5,490m when it lost contact with air traffic control at 1.35pm, about half an hour after takeoff.
The military named the captain, Lieutenant Colonel Nyein Chan, as a "seasoned" pilot , who it said had more than 3,000 hours of flying experience.
He was flying the Chinese-made, four-engine Y-8 turboprop - a medium-range transport plane based on the Soviet Antonov An-12, which has had numerous crashes over the decades.
The military said the plane that crashed was delivered in March last year and had a total of 809 hours of flying time.
Myanmar's military fleet has a chequered recent history of plane crashes.
A five-strong crew died when an air force plane burst into flames soon after taking off from the capital Naypyitaw in February last year.
Three army officers were also killed in June when their Mi-2 helicopter crashed into a hillside and burst into flames in south-central Bago.