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NOVEMBER 13, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 19


David Guttenfelder/AP.
A relative of a victim of the Singapore Airlines crash cries as he views the wreckage at Taipei's Chiang Kai-shek airport.

Fatal Error
Singapore Airlines admits that one of its 747s took off down the wrong runway, resulting in 81 deaths
By DAFFYD RODERICK

While Pan Chi-hsiang waited to board Singapore Airlines Flight 006, the passengers in line with him made nervous small talk. Outside the window they could see 90 km/h gusts of wind from an approaching typhoon fluttering the wings of their waiting jumbo jet. An American passenger kidded that Pan, who was assigned to the last row, could at least look forward to surviving if the plane crashed. Pan jokingly offered to sell him his boarding pass.

Pan might not be alive now if he had made that deal: barely 20 minutes later, the Boeing 747-400 rumbled down the wrong runway at Taipei's Chiang Kai-shek airport, struck concrete barriers meant to block off construction equipment, clipped a back-hoe, flipped over and exploded in a ball of fire. Seventy-nine of the flight's 179 passengers and crew died on impact, including most of those who, like the American who joked with Pan, were sitting in the middle section of the jet. Two more passengers later died after being rushed to the hospital, while another 52 suffered injuries including horrific burns from flaming jet fuel. The crash—the first fatal accident in the 28-year history of Singapore Airlines—left wreckage strewn across the tarmac and hard questions hanging in the air.

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A wrong turn onto a normally unused runway leads to Singapore Airlines' first fatal crash, with 81 deaths

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Investigators are now focusing on one in particular: Why was the massive plane on the wrong runway, 5-Right instead of 5-Left? According to Taiwan's Civil Aeronautics Administration, runway "5R," used only for taxiing, was undergoing repair work at the time of the crash, and pilot Foong Chee Kong had been told to use 5L. The center lights on 5R—powered by the same switch as the taxiway—were on. But they are green, while the left runway's are white. There are conflicting reports as to whether the lights that run along the sides of 5R were on, with Singapore flight attendants saying they were and the tower saying they were switched off. More crucially, concrete barriers were placed only part of the way down the runway, where the repairs were taking place, rather than at the beginning. By the time the plane reached them it was moving at full takeoff speed.

The driving storm prevented tower personnel from seeing that the jumbo was on the wrong runway, and Chiang Kai-shek does not have ground radar. But investigators are hard-pressed to explain how the pilot and the two co-pilots missed the fact that they were on the wrong runway. Foong, a Malaysian, has 21 years of experience and has flown in and out of the Taipei airport 10 times.

At 11:15 p.m. on Halloween night, Foong thought he would be able to take off one more time, despite the typhoon. Malaysian passenger Hoh Kim-keong, 36, and his wife Lai Chew-yen, 39, were on their way to Los Angeles for a wedding and were seated in the back of the plane. Hoh stared out of the window as they sped down the runway. He says that just as the plane began to take flight, he felt as if the aircraft had "crashed against something on the ground." Cockpit voice recordings reveal that Foong saw an object on the runway as the plane reached flight speed of 263 km/h. He attempted to pull up. "The pilot was fighting for control, you could feel it," says Hoh. "Then the plane came down with a big crash and tilted 90 degrees."

When their section of the plane finally scraped to a stop, Hoh and Lai found themselves hanging in the air by their seatbelts. Hoh managed to pop his buckle and tumble free, but Lai was stuck. "I told him to go ahead without me, to save himself, but he wouldn't listen," Lai says. Hoh frantically pulled at his wife, trying to free her as he smelled jet fuel leaking into the cabin. Finally Lai came loose and the pair scrambled across an obstacle course of seatbacks and carry-on luggage toward a gap where the fuselage had broken open. They jumped a short distance to the ground and sprinted away from the wreckage, down the runway to a drainage ditch from where they watched the aircraft explode.

Pinned in his own back-row seat, Pan was cut loose from his seatbelt by a flight attendant. "I could hear people crying 'Help me, help me!' and other voices yelling 'This way, this way, don't worry,'" says Pan, a 43-year-old auto-parts manufacturer from Taipei. Thinking of his wife, who had asked him not to fly in such bad weather, Pan followed the voices to safety, though he can't remember exactly how he escaped from the plane. "I just know I saw the sky above me and I felt safe, but the wind was so strong it almost knocked me over," he says.

At the opposite end of the aircraft—in a first-class section that broke completely away from the main fuselage—John Diaz, 50, used his body as a battering ram to knock open the emergency exit. After he got the door open, the safety chute deployed, tossing Diaz and fellow survivors into a confused heap. "It was probably only a second or two, but it seemed like forever before we got untangled and away from that unbearable heat," he says. Passengers seated in the mid-section of the plane were doomed by their position: the fuel stored in the wings exploded soon after impact, sending a ball of flame through that part of the cabin, front to back, that killed most of the section's passengers where they sat.

Yellow-jacketed investigators from Taiwan, Singapore and the United States have had to battle miserable weather to examine the crash site. But it did not take long for them to determine that the plane lined up on the wrong runway. "The flight data recorder shows that SQ 006 turned into 5R," says Yong Kay, managing director of Taiwan's Aviation Safety Council, who is in charge of the investigation. "We cannot answer how the plane got positioned on the closed runway right now, nor can we say whose responsibility it is." Amid the debris is an overturned, heavily damaged backhoe as well as other broken bits of construction equipment.

Investigators say the nose of the aircraft was two meters off the ground when its undercarriage smashed into the concrete barriers. Then the aircraft became briefly airborne before its right wing hit the backhoe and burst into flames. After initially denying that the plane could have taken off from the wrong runway, Singapore Airlines now concedes that its jumbo was in the wrong spot. "We're accepting our responsibility," says Singapore Airlines spokesman Rick Clements. "We now have to find out how this happened and make sure it never happens again." Foong and his co-pilots have been temporarily barred from leaving Taiwan while the investigation is underway.

There was initial speculation that Flight 006 might have been downed by wind shear, a phenomenon where wind direction shifts so violently that the aircraft loses lift and drops like a stone, as rapidly as 1,000 m a second. But while crosswinds at the time of the crash were severe—and enough to dissuade at least one Cathay Pacific pilot from taking off from Chiang Kai-shek—they were under the 56-km/h limit set by Boeing for 747s. (A China Airlines jet took off safely from runway 5L only 10 minutes earlier.) International standards say that visibility must be at least 60 m and the wind less than 111 km/h. At the time of takeoff, visibility was listed as 500-600 m and the wind was blowing at 52 km/h, with gusts up to 93 km/h.

That leaves pilot error as the most likely explanation for the mistake, and much of the shock of the crash has revolved around the possibility that a Singapore Airlines crew had made the error. The flag carrier recently ranked among the top 20 safest airlines in the world. (The only fatal crash linked to the airline is the 1997 downing of one of subsidiary Silk Air's 737s in Sumatra, which killed all 104 people on board.) Yet as if the humiliation of crashing wasn't enough, the airline has also faced harsh criticism for its handling of the incident. Shortly after the accident, while pictures of the fiery wreck flashed across news channels around the world, Singapore Airlines released a statement that claimed there had been no fatalities. The airline later released a list of the deceased to the media before notifying relatives. Two subsequent press conferences were shouted down by outraged and distraught family members.

Still, the airline's solid reputation is likely to survive the crash. "There is going to be a short-term perception issue," says John Trevett, author of an air-safety survey and a trainer of air-crash investigators at Cranfield University in southern England. "But considering their history, it won't hurt their statistical record that badly."

That's little comfort to the families who traveled to Taipei to identify and collect the remains of their loved ones, many of whom were so badly burned that they had to be identified by DNA. Gathered together in a makeshift morgue at the airport, they mourned and wondered how their husbands, wives, sons and daughters came to die on one of the world's safest airlines. Those like Pan who had the good fortune of being in the right seat at the right time were, on the other hand, left wondering how they came to live.

With reporting by Don Shapiro, Macabe Keliher and Cybil Chou/Taipei, Wayne Arnold/Singapore and Kate Drake/Hong Kong

Write to TIME at mail@web.timeasia.com

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