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TransAsia propjet crash: Death toll rises to 26 in Taiwan plane crash

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Beijing (Feb. 04, 2015): Rescue teams in Taiwan continued the somber search for survivors and bodies Thursday after the spectacular crash of a TransAsia Airways propjet.

At least 26 people died — but 15 survived — when the plane clipped its left wing on a bridge shortly after taking off from the capital of Taipei and crashed into a nearby Keelung River. Seventeen people remained missing and were feared dead.

Taiwanese rescuers used a massive crane to hoist the French-built ATR 72-600 plane from the shallow, murky river after survivors were brought to safety on rubber rafts or scrambled to the river bank on their own. One injured person was reportedly found in a park along the river, Taiwan News reported.

Wu Jun-Hong, a Taipei Fire Department official coordinating the rescue, said he was not "too optimistic" that more survivors would be found.

Dramatic dashcam footage from vehicles on an elevated highway clearly shows the plane's tragic crash. Some Taiwanese paid homage to the pilot, saying he made a desperate, deliberate choice to avoid the additional casualties likely if the plane had hit nearby apartment buildings, high schools and roads.

Taiwan's Liberty Times newspaper quoted online comments thanking and praising the pilot's actions, although aviation authorities could not immediately confirm such an effort took place. The fate of pilot Liao Jianzong, who reportedly had nearly 5,000 hours of flying experience, was not immediately known.

It was the second of TransAsia's ATR 72 to crash in the past year. Last July, a flight crashed in stormy weather while attempting to land on the island of Penghu, killing 48 people and injuring 10. Taiwan's Civil Aeronautics Administration on Wednesday ordered local carriers to ground the nation's 22 ATR 72 planes pending inspections.

More than half of the 53 passengers and five crewmembers aboard Wednesday's flight, en route to the outlying Taiwan-controlled Kinmen islands, were from China. Relatives and friends on Kinmen, which is close to China, gathered at the airport to await news.

Chinese President Xi Jinping expressed condolences, saying he was "deeply grieved." Wednesday's flight took off from Taipei's downtown Sungshan Airport. TransAsia director Peter Chen said contact with the plane was lost four minutes after takeoff. He said weather conditions were not a factor and the cause of the accident had not been determined.

The plane's black boxes were recovered. Based on a recording of communications between the cockpit and the control tower, the pilot called out "mayday" three times shortly after takeoff, the CAA said.

Thirty-one passengers were tourists from Xiamen, a nearby Chinese coastal city, who were traveling as two tour groups organized by two travel agencies. One of the mainland tour groups was originally booked on a later flight to Kinmen, but changed to the ill-fated flight Wednesday morning, reported Taiwan's state news agency CNA.

After decades of rivalry and tense relations across the Taiwan Straits, Taipei has relaxed restrictions on mainland tourists in recent years, leading to a boom in visitors from China.