Phuket crash followed wind threat warnings

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PHUKET, Thailand, Sep 18 (Reuters) The Indonesian pilot of a budget airliner that crashed on the Thai resort island of Phuket, killing 89 people, tried to land despite being warned of windshear threats, a top Thai aviation official said today.

His comments came as religious leaders prayed at Phuket airport among the wreckage of the McDonnell Douglas MD-82, which veered off the runway in a fierce monsoon storm on Sunday, smashed into a wooded embankment and burst into flames.

Two other pilots had reported dramatic changes in wind speed and direction as they landed on Thailand's biggest island minutes before the doomed One-Two-Go flight, Kamtorn Sirikorn, a senior executive at air traffic controller Aerothai, told Reuters.

''The pilot definitely knew about the windshear because he was on the same radio frequency as the previous two planes,'' he said.

''The control tower repeated the conditions to him and he acknowledged them just before the landing,'' after a crash, which 41 people survived, that raised more safety questions about the budget carriers which have sprung up across Asia.

''The tape I listened to verified this,'' he said, referring to the communications between the control tower and the plane.

But the airline said pointing fingers at Indonesian flight captain Arief Mulyadi and his Thai co-pilot, both killed, was unwarranted before the investigation was complete.

''As for people coming out with categorical statements about what had happened, I just don't know where they got their information as the black box is still on its way to the United States,'' airline chief executive Captain Kajit Habanananda said.

''Captain Arief Mulyadi was our most experienced pilot who was regarded as an instructor. I knew him personally. He could always maintain the best composure in making sound judgements.'' The flight data recorders from the American-built airliner could take two weeks to analyse, officials say.

FORENSIC EXPERTS DUE Most of the dead were foreign holidaymakers, who are so far known to include 18 Iranians -- including four children and two couples on their honeymoon -- five Americans, four Swedes, a French national, one Australian, one Briton and one Canadian.

Forensic experts from Israel, one of 20 countries that sent teams to Phuket to help identify victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, flew in to help identify eight Israelis feared dead.

Australia, which played a key role in the effort to identify the 5,395 tsunami dead in Thailand, has also offered experts to work at the temporary morgue at Phuket airport.

The identities of 32 Thais and 25 foreigners have been confirmed so far, but some relatives are frustrated at the slow pace of identifying the dead.

''In Israel, when there is an accident, we work round the clock until the job is finished,'' Israeli rescue worker Dano Monkotowicz told Reuters.

''There is no way the work has to stop because a doctor is sleeping. If one doctor is sleeping, another doctor will carry on until everything is finished,'' he said at the temporary morgue.

A mile away, 12 Buddhist monks, seven Muslim clerics and a Catholic priest prayed among the wreckage, which was dragged 2 km (1.25 miles) from the crash site and swathed in camouflage netting.

''We pray for all passengers, no matter what their religion,'' Catholic priest Peter Panya said.

Autopsies on the 89 bodies were completed on Monday and investigators were collecting fingerprints, blood samples and X-raying teeth to help identify them all.

Survivors spoke of torrential rain and trees bent over in the wind as the plane approached the ''Pearl of the Andaman'' isle, famed for its white-sand beaches, azure waters and nightlife.

REUTERS ARB VC1635

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