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Villagers Stole Valuables From Crash Site - And Possibly, Some Evidence

May 29, 1991 GMT

BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) _ Thousands of villagers removed valuables from bodies and picked over the wreckage of an Austrian jetliner, possibly removing evidence that could determine if a bomb destroyed the plane.

Bangkok newspapers say as many as 20,000 people swarmed to the site 100 miles northwest of Bangkok where the Lauda Air Boeing 767 crashed Sunday, killing all 223 people aboard. Officials reported today that all the bodies have been recovered, many of them mangled or charred.

When police reached the wreckage at about 1 a.m. Monday - less than two hours after the last communication from the plane - they reportedly found 200 villagers going over the wreckage in the jungle.

Ed Shore, a Boeing Co. representative assigned to Lauda Air, inspected the site Tuesday and said virtually everything of value had been taken, including possible evidence.

Speculation has focused on the possibility that a bomb exploded as the plane approached cruising altitude after taking off from Bangkok en route to Vienna, Austria.

A transcript of the radio conversation between the Bangkok traffic controllers and the 767′s pilot indicates the aircraft was experiencing no problems before communications were lost.

Austrian newspapers have speculated a ″drug mafia″ planted a bomb on the jet. Several newspapers reported 11 pounds of heroin were found in the wreckage.

Niki Lauda, founder of the Vienna-based airline, said today he was told by police that they suspected Lauda Air flights were used by drug couriers. But he said he could not confirm reports that heroin was found at the crash site.

″You’d have to be incredibly lucky to find something there,″ Lauda said of the wreckage, which he inspected Tuesday. ″Perhaps it’s true ... but I can only say that from what I’ve seen, I have difficulty imagining it.″

Police were pursuing a drug dealer who allegedly was aboard the flight from Bangkok, Lauda told reporters, adding: ″Everything was prepared in Vienna to catch him.″

Lauda said Thai officials failed to secure the crash site.

″I was shaken by the conditions there,″ he said. ″Neither the police nor the military have sealed off the area ... Hundreds of Thais who have nothing to do with the rescue work are marching through or looking on.″

He said the villagers stole anything ″that wasn’t nailed in place.″

The ″human vultures,″ as one Bangkok newspaper described them, stole cash, travelers checks, electronic goods, watches, personal mementos and documents - including passports and other identification papers.

Pieces of the wreckage also were carried away. Sometimes entire families, including children, took part in the looting.

Col. Narong Konvimolprateep, police chief of Suphanburi province where the jet crashed, said authorities could not stop the looters because of the wide area over which the wreckage was spread and the rugged terrain.

The chief said the looting should not affect the investigation. ″Moving parts should not affect the investigation because we already know the plane exploded in the air,″ he said.

A Thai air force general also discounted the impact of the looting on the investigation. The general, who spoke on condition of anonymity, noted a major piece of wreckage and the jet’s flight and voice recorders were recovered. They contain most of the information vital to the investigation, he said.

However, Thailand’s two English-language newspapers today sharply criticized the looters and the authorities.

″While they continue their ghoulish looting spree amidst the smoldering wreckage we cannot help but hang our heads in shame and despair,″ wrote The Nation. It said authorities failed to protect the crash site from the ″rapacious and callous″ villagers.

″The continued failure of responsible authorities to prevent scavenging and theft at accident scenes in Thailand is little short of scandalous,″ said the Bangkok Post.

″The reason why up to 20,000 spectators thronged to the crash and morgue sites of the airline disaster and were allowed to trample and steal possibly vital evidence was because of laggardly atrocious response by the authorities,″ the newspaper wrote.

Looting has taken place in Thailand after previous plane crashes, and even has occurred after traffic accidents. When a Vietnamese airliner crashed near Bangkok airport in 1988, pieces of the fuselage were carried off as scrap metal. Six years ago, villagers made off with the flight recorders from a domestic jet that crashed in southern Thailand.

The victims of traffic accidents - the living and the dead - often find their valuables are stolen by bystanders.

An American photographer, whose neck was broken in a car crash, was stripped of his belongings after the accident. A Western refugee worker, knocked unconscious in a motorcyle accident, revived just as a looter was beginning to cut off his finger to get his ring.