Officials Probe Charred Taiwanese Jet

TOKYO --

Aviation officials probing the charred wreckage of a Taiwanese jet said Tuesday they were investigating the possibility a fuel leak led to the fire that forced all 165 people aboard to flee the aircraft after it landed.

No serious injuries were reported among the 157 passengers and crew of eight on the China Airlines Boeing 737-800 that exploded in a fireball Monday on the tarmac of Okinawa Airport after a flight from Taiwan.

An initial examination of the wreckage by Japanese officials reached no conclusion over what caused the fire, said Hiromi Tsurumi, a spokesman with Japan's Aircraft and Railway Accidents Investigation Commission.

"We are investigating a possible fuel leak in the engine area. We want to know how the fuel could have leaked and how it could have caught fire," Tsurumi said.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board sent investigators to the scene, as did Boeing. A team of Japanese, Taiwanese and U.S. experts are to start a joint inspection Wednesday, Tsurumi said.

News reports said a massive fuel leak from a damaged pipe near the plane's right engine could have led to the explosions. Authorities are also investigating whether any loose plane parts or objects could have been sucked into the engine, Kyodo News agency said, quoting unidentified officials.

In Taiwan, China Airlines praised the bravery of the crew for supervising the evacuation of passengers, who fled down emergency chutes amid the fire.

Capt. Yu Chien-kuo stayed aboard until all passengers had been evacuated and then jumped from the two-story cockpit window, said Johnson Sun, the airline spokesman.

Co-pilot Tseng Ta-wei jumped from the same window less than a second ahead of Yu, Sun said.

"Our pilots were the last to depart," Sun said. "They told the flight attendants to execute an evacuation and help passengers escape within the shortest possible time."

The jet erupted in a fireball as the pilot jumped from the window.

"They did what they should have and acted with great bravery," he said. The entire evacuation took three minutes after ground crew told Yu they spotted flames on the wings, he said.

Taiwan's Civil Aviation Authority said Tuesday the plane had suffered problems with a sensor connected to one of its wings earlier this month. The problem recurred the next day but was unrelated to Monday's fire, according to the authority.

Airport traffic controllers had received no report from the pilot indicating anything was wrong as the aircraft landed or as it came to a halt near the terminal to let passengers disembark, according to Japan's Transport Ministry.

The plane had CFM 56 engines, made by CFM International, a joint venture between GE Aviation, a unit of General Electric Co., and France's Snecma. All 737-800s are built with the same engine, Boeing spokesman Jim Proulx said.

Taiwan's Civil Aeronautics Administration head Chang Kuo-cheng said authorities ordered China Airlines and its subsidiary Mandarin Airlines to ground their 13 other Boeing 737-800s pending a thorough inspection.

Japan's Transport Ministry said Tuesday no problems were found in an emergency inspection of all Boeing 737-800 planes owned by Japanese airlines, as well as some 737-700 models that carry a similar engine.

Boeing said it has delivered more than 5,400 737s since the plane entered commercial service in 1968. Airlines started flying the 737-800 in 1998, and as of July 31, there were about 1,220 flying worldwide.

A China Airlines 747 crashed in 2002 as it flew from Taipei to Hong Kong, leading to 225 deaths, and some 450 people died in China Airlines accidents during the 1990s.


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