Thai investigators sift through Phuket plane wreck

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PHUKET, Thailand, Sept 17 (Reuters) Thai air investigators sifted though the wreckage today of a budget airliner that crashed on the resort isle of Phuket, killing 88 people as it broke up while trying to land in driving rain.

As well as looking for clues as to why the McDonnell Douglas MD-82 veered off the runway and smashed into a densely wooded embankment, rescue workers still have to recover five bodies from the wreckage.

Both pilots were killed, deputy transport minister Sansern Wong-Chaum said, but 42 people survived a crash that is likely to raise more safety questions for the dozens of budget carriers that have sprung up across Asia in the last decade.

Five survivors were in critical condition, with burns to 60 percent of their bodies, hospital officials said.

The ''black box'' flight data recorder has been recovered and much of the investigation is likely to focus on the weather conditions as the plane, flown by Bangkok-based low-cost operator One-Two-Go, was coming in to land.

''We will have to wait for the actual cause of the accident.

We will send the black box to the United States. It will take one week to analyse,'' Sansern told Thailand's Channel 7 television.

Survivors spoke of torrential rain and trees bent over in the wind, and several accounts suggested the pilot attempted to land, but then aborted.

''The pilot tried to bring the plane back up. He started to turn right and made a sharp turn right and then the plane went into the embankment,'' Millie Furlong, a 23-year-old waitress from Canada, told Reuters in hospital.

''I saw the grass and knew we were going to crash. It was very quick.'' ''EXPERIENCED PILOT'' Udom Tantiprasongchai, chairman of One-Two-Go parent company Orient Thai Airlines, said the pilot was experienced.

''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 told reporters yesterday evening. ''I'm deeply sorry about this tragic event.'' Despite a number of crashes and scares, most recently in Indonesia, analysts say there is no hard evidence to suggest budget carriers are more accident-prone than their full-service competitors.

So far, the only foreigner confirmed dead from the crash is French. There has been no word on other nationalities, although in a country that welcomes more than 12 million tourists a year, they are likely to be from every corner of the globe.

Airports of Thailand said there were seven crew and 78 foreigners on board, most of them European holidaymakers.

Fourteen Thais, eight Britons, five Iranians and four Germans were among the survivors, hospital workers said.

Officials said the plane had broken in two when it touched down on the isle, still dubbed the ''Pearl of the Andaman'' despite the devastation wrought by the Dec. 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

Reuters RC VP0420

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