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Farmers return looted flight recorder in Cambodian crash

September 5, 1997

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) _ Farmers returned a looted flight recorder to investigators probing the deadly crash of a Vietnam Airlines jet Friday, heeding an appeal broadcast on radio and television.

Aviation officials said recovery of the flight recorder _ plundered by hundreds of villagers who rifled the pockets of victims and made off with scrap metal from the wreckage _ could prove essential to learning the cause of Wednesday’s crash.

Repatriation of the 65 victims _ most from Taiwan and South Korea _ was to start Saturday. The only known survivors were a Vietnamese boy and a Thai toddler.

Vietnam Airlines flew grief-stricken family members for free to Phnom Penh, where they mourned their dead in a daylong religious ceremony Friday at a hospital lecture hall converted into a morgue.

Incense helped mask the smell of bodies rotting in a heat beyond the control of an overworked air conditioner; grieving relatives fainted in the stifling atmosphere. The room was too small to hold all 65 bodies, and eight coffins rested outside.

Wails of grief went up when family members, peering under white sheets, found and identified loved ones.

``It’s very, very sad,″ said a South Korean businessman, who refused to give his name. ``Why should only Koreans go through such tragedies as this, I don’t know.″

The crash came less than a month after a Korean Air plane crashed in Guam, killing 226 people.

A family living near Wednesday’s crash site, a stretch of rice paddies about a half-mile south of Pochentong International Airport, recovered the black box and brought it to a television station. The farmers claimed a $200 reward.

It was unclear how the ``black box″ came into their possession, but looting had been widespread at the crash site, with some police officers joining the crowds scavenging among luggage and bodies of victims.

Sith Sakal, head of the civil aviation authority’s security department, said the box was broken, apparently by villagers pounding the box with metal to try to open it. The tape inside was still in good condition.

Two of the aircraft’s three black boxes have now been discovered. Cambodian and Vietnamese investigators are still discussing which country they will be sent to for examination.

The government, which observed a day of official mourning Friday, has ordered an inquiry into the crash and looting.

Vietnam Embassy officials confirmed that a roughly 4-year-old Vietnamese boy was apparently the second survivor of the crash. Initially, there was confusion over whether the boy might have been a local resident who wandered into the crash scene.

A 1-year-old Thai boy also survived.

Officials from Vietnam Airlines said the twin-engine Tu-134, one of the few Soviet-era planes still in service with the carrier, had been regularly maintained and met international safety regulations.

A severe rain storm is thought to have contributed to the crash. Cambodian officials have said they lost communication with the plane as it was flying at about 2,000 feet on a landing approach. Three minutes later, it dove into palm trees and bamboo, skidded into the paddy and exploded in flames.

Witnesses said the plane was coming in to land, then tried and failed to regain altitude.

The official Vietnam News published a list showing the passengers included 21 South Koreans, 21 Taiwanese, two Canadians, two Cambodians, two Vietnamese, and one person each from Japan, Britain, Australia, Hong Kong and China.

The nationality of seven was listed as unknown, including the Thai boy. The plane carried six Vietnamese crew.

The discrepancy between 66 people known to have been on the plane compared to the 65 bodies and two survivors found was not explained.

Update hourly