Divers search Mekong River for victims of aircrash

PAKSE, Laos - Rescuers in fishing boats pulled bodies from the muddy Mekong River on Thursday as officials in Laos ruled out finding survivors from a plane that crashed in stormy weather, killing 49 people from 11 countries including five from Thailand.

A woman looks at debris scattered on the Mekong riverbank where a Lao Airlines plane apparently hit hard before skidding into the water and sinking on Wednesday near Pakse in southern Laos. (AP photo)

Backpacks, an airplane propeller and passports were among the debris scattered on the riverbank where the Lao Airlines twin turboprop plane apparently hit hard before skidding into the water and sinking Wednesday.

"So far eight bodies have been found. We don't yet know their nationalities,'' said Yakao Lopangkao, director-general of Lao's Department of Civil Aviation, who was at the crash site in Pakse, the main town in the southern Lao province of Champassak. "We haven't found the plane yet. It is underwater. We're trying to use divers to locate it.''

He ruled out finding survivors. "There is no hope. The plane appears to have crashed very hard before entering the water.''  

Divers cling to a boat as they search for bodies of victims of a crashed Lao Airlines plane in the Mekong River in Pakse on Thursday. (AP photo)

Some bodies were found as far as 20 kilometres downstream from the crash site, he said.

"We have asked villagers and people who live along the river to look for bodies and alert authorities when they see anything,'' he said.  

Fleets of small fishing boats and inflatable rafts plied the muddy, vast waterway as part of the search with men in life vests peering into the water. After the storms Wednesday, the search on Thursday took place under sunny blue skies.

Thailand was helping with the search.

Thai navy spokesman Rr Adm Karn Deeubon said nine navy divers and five coordinators had been sent to help Lao authorities in the search and recovery operation.

Lao authorities contacted Thai officials in adjoining Ubon Ratchathani, asking to move the bodies to Sunpasitprasong Hospital in Muang district for forensic examination, officials said.

Pol Lt Gen Jarumporn Suramanee, a forensic expert, and his team was helping to identify the bodies, they added.

State-run Lao Airlines released an updated list of the 44 passengers and their nationalities on Thursday. It said the flight included 16 Lao nationals, seven French, six Australians, five Thais, three Koreans, two Vietnamese and one person each from Canada, China, Malaysia, Taiwan and the United States. The plane also carried five crew members.

Cambodian authorities said one of the plane's two pilots was a 56-year-old Cambodian with more than 30 years flying experience.

Lao Airlines said in a statement that the plane took off from the capital Vientiane and "ran into extreme bad weather conditions'' as it prepared to land at Pakse airport. The area is known for its remote Buddhist temples, nature treks and waterfalls - which draw tourists.

Lao villagers look at pieces of a Lao Airlines plane after it crashed into the Mekong River near Pakse on Wednesday. (AFP photo)

The airline said it had yet to determine the reasons for the crash of the ATR 72-600 aircraft, which was almost new, having been delivered only in March this year.

The crash occurred about 7 kilometres from the airport in neighbouring Phonthong district.

"We think the crash was caused by bad weather because the aircraft was very new,'' Lao Airlines president and CEO Somphone DoungdaraLao.

The aircraft had been delivered from the factory in March, Mr Somphone added.

Mr Somphone told The Vientiane Times that no flights will depart unless weather conditions at the destination are deemed to be safe.

Flight QV301 departed Vientiane at 2.45pm and was supposed to arrive in Paske, in the southern  province of Champassak, at 4pm.

Five Thai passengers were on board the flight. They included two working for PTT Plc, it emerged today. A Lao national working for PTT was also on board the ill-fated flight. The Thais were named as Yanyong Apaanan and Nipol Mengseechanakuldee, and the Lao was Vilathep Vivavong. They were travelling to southern Laos to explore a business plan to open petrol stations and an oil depot in Champassak, Post Today reported.

Chavalit Punthong, senior executive vice president in charge of PTT's Oil Business Unit, said the company will take full responsibility for its dead employees.

The other three Thais on the plane were Kamueng Chartkasamchai, Phakkhawat Atiratanachai and Veekij Busarawuthanu, according the airline's list of passengers.

Among the six Australians on board, was a family of four. Relatives released a photo of the family, Gavin and Phoumalaysy Rhodes and their two children, a 3-year-old girl and a 17-month-old boy.

The other two Australians were a father and son. They were identified as Michael Creighton, a 42-year-old aid worker based in Laos who had worked for the United Nations, and his father, Gordon Creighton, 71, a retired teacher who was visiting his son.

"We have lost a father, a husband, a son, a brother, a fiance and a best mate in one tragic circumstance and we are trying to come to terms with our loss,'' the family said in a statement. Michael Creighton was living in Laos with his fiance, who was not on the plane.

Related search: lao airlines, passengers, pakse, champassak, thailand, ubon ratchathani, ptt plc, navy, laos, atr, accident, crash

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Writer: Bangkok Post and Agencies