Thai plane toll at 89, with 55 foreigners

Thai plane toll at 89, with 55 foreigners

Bangkok: A passenger plane filled with foreign tourists crashed Sunday in heavy rain on Thailand’s tourist island of Phuket, leaving at least 89 people dead and more than 42 hospitalized, officials said.

Phuket’s Deputy Governor Worapot Ratthaseema could not immediately say how many foreigners died, but he said the dead included Irish, Israeli, Australian and British passengers. He said as many as 27 of the injured were foreigners.

Officials at the scene said the plane crashed in a downpour, skidded off the runaway and broke into two parts. Survivors described a chaotic situation, trying to escape from windows as fires and smoke consumed the plane.

The budget One-Two-Go Airlines domestic flight OG269 was carrying 123 mostly foreign passengers and five crew members to Phuket from the Thai capital, Bangkok, local television station TITV reported. One-Two-Go is owned by Orient Thai Airways.

Television images showed the blackened jet lying on grass off the runway. Rescuers could be seen carrying bodies covered with blankets. Five people were in critical condition at the Bangkok Hospital Phuket, where 30 survivors had been admitted.

Among those being treated were citizens of Thailand, Germany, Austria, Britain, Australia, Ireland and Iran. Authorities closed the airport after the crash

Eye witness account

“I saw passengers engulfed in fire as I stepped over them on the way out of the plane," survivor Parinwit Chusaeng, who was slightly burned, said on the Nation TV channel. “I was afraid that the airplane was going to explode, so I ran away."

Parinwit said he looked back and saw fires raging in the front and back of the plane. “I saw the plane in flames and there was a lot of smoke," he said.

An Irish survivor, identified only as Sean, told of being badly burned on his arms, legs and back as he escaped the flames. Speaking to TITV from a Phuket hospital, he said he had sensed early on that there was a problem.

Chaisak Angsuwan, director general of the Air Transport Authority of Thailand, said weather played a part in the crash. “Visibility was poor as the pilot attempted to land. He decided to make a go-around but the plane lost balance and crashed," he said. “It was torn into two parts."

The crash is the country’s deadliest aviation accident since Dec. 11, 1998, when 101 people were killed after a Thai Airways crashed while trying to land in heavy rain at Surat Thani, 530 kilometers (330 miles) south of Bangkok.

Phuket is Thailand’s premier tourist destination and one of the most popular with international visitors to Asia. Earnings from tourism accounted for 7% of the Southeast Asian nation’s $195 million economy last year. A tsunami in December 2004 killed about 5,400 people and left nearly 3,000 missing in southern Thailand’s islands, including Phuket.

No evidence to prove that low cost carriers are more accident prone

Bangkok-based One-Two-Go opened in December 2003, and operates 168 flights a week, carrying 150,000 passengers a month domestically as well as to Hong Kong and South Korea.

Demand for cheap air travel from locals and foreigners alike has spurred massive expansion in the budget airline sector in the last decade in the region.

Despite a number of crashes and safety scares involving budget operators, especially in Indonesia, analysts say there is no hard evidence to suggest they are more accident-prone than full-service carriers.

In March, the European Union lifted a ban on Thailand’s Phuket Air after the company addressed Brussels’ safety concerns.

One-to-Go chairman Udom Tantiprasongchai said the MD-82 that crashed at Phuket was being flown by an experienced, foreign pilot. The planes were leased from abroad and were 100% insured, he told Thailand’s ITV news channel.

“Tomorrow the police will set up an investigating committee to find out what actually caused the accident. What we need to do right now is take care of the injured," he said. “It will take a week to study the black box."

The flight from Bangkok was trying to land in torrential rain and survivors spoke of turbulence as the plane approached the runway.

Other small operators in Thailand include Nok Air, Thai Air Asia, Phuket Air and Bangkok Airways. More than 12 million people visit Thailand each year, many of them on package tours from Europe have spruced up their safety procedures.