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Dozens Hurt in China Plane Fire

August 22, 1999

HONG KONG (AP) _ A China Airlines jet caught fire and flipped over while crash-landing at Hong Kong’s airport in a tropical storm Sunday evening, killing two people and injuring at least 188 of the 315 people aboard, witnesses and officials said.

Witnesses said the plane was on fire before it came down, with the right wing hitting the runway first before the rest of the jet flipped over and burst into flames.

Passenger David MacDonell described the harrowing landing in the windy storm, which had hindered operations at Chek Lap Kok airport earlier in the day.

``At about 100 meters (300 feet) from the runway, people at the back started clapping. And I thought it was the kiss of death, and it was,″ MacDonell told The Associated Press.

Flight CI642 from Bangkok, Thailand, was thrown off balance by ``an overly hard side wind″ as the pilot tried to land the MD-11 in Tropical Storm Sam, said Scott Shih, a spokesman for China Airlines at the carrier’s headquarters in Taipei, Taiwan.

``I saw the plane, like a fireball coming down,″ said Toshi Hoshino, a businessman from Osaka, Japan, who was changing airplanes in Hong Kong. ``The right wing hit the ground first. The left side of the body then followed.″

Two people _ a man and a woman _ were killed, according to a Hong Kong government spokeswoman, using customary anonymity. A spokeswoman at Hong Kong’s Yan Chai Hospital, Doris Sin, said a 31-year-old woman had died in the crash.

At least 65 people had been taken to two local hospitals, the Hong Kong government spokeswoman said, adding that 15 of them were hurt seriously. China Airlines said 188 people were injured, 20 of them seriously.

``The flight was on fire before it landed,″ said an American businessman who saw the accident from an airport restaurant where he was waiting on a flight to China. ``It left a trail of fire, five or six times as long as the plane. They seemed to have problems containing the fire. It was so windy.″

The burning airplane skidded to a halt on the runway and it took officials five or 10 minutes to bring the flames under control, said the businessman, who said he was from Portland, Ore., but would not give his name.

The China Airlines spokesman said the crash occurred at 6:40 p.m. local time and that everyone aboard had been evacuated by 7:30 p.m.

Taiwan cable station TVBS reported most of the passengers were Thai nationals.

There also were about 80 Portuguese tourists aboard, said a Hong Kong travel agent, Sardy Tong, who had gone to meet the tour group at the airport. Tong said China Airlines had advised him earlier in the day the flight would not be coming in, although he later got a phone call saying it had taken off.

``They shouldn’t even have let the plane fly,″ Tong told the AP.

The plane was surrounded by fire engines and ambulances and the Airport Authority closed Chek Lap Kok as well as an express train that takes people from downtown Hong Kong to the airport.

It was the worst incident since the $9 billion airport was opened in July 1998. In 1993, a China Airlines Boeing 747 veered off a runway at Hong Kong’s old Kai Tak airport and belly flopped into the sea, injuring 22 people.

Operations were disrupted earlier Sunday at Chek Lap Kok as Tropical Storm Sam battered the territory. Some passengers reported their inbound flights had been diverted temporarily because of the heavy winds.

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