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Looters may have taken flight recorder from Cambodian crash

September 4, 1997

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) _ Looters may have made away with a crucial flight recorder in the course of pillaging the wreckage of a deadly Vietnam Airlines crash, investigators said Thursday.

At least 65 people died Wednesday when the airliner went down while approaching Phnom Penh’s airport in a fierce rainstorm. The jet exploded in flames in a rice paddy about a half-mile south of the runway.

Seventeen bodies were recovered from the wreckage Thursday, joining 48 other corpses at Phnom Pehn’s main hospital, where relatives gathered to identify the dead.

It was still unclear how many of the dead were people on the plane, most of whom were from Taiwan and South Korea. Authorities said the crash may have killed some people on the ground.

At least one passenger survived _ a 1-year-old Thai boy whose mother died in the crash. The boy, who suffered a broken leg, was released from the hospital Thursday and returned to Thailand with his father.

Another boy hospitalized with head injuries may also have been a passenger. Believed to be about 4 years old, he was found Wednesday wandering about 100 yards from the crash site. Doctors said he had spoken a few words of Vietnamese and Khmer, but they still didn’t know his name.

Investigators recovered one of the plane’s black boxes but were unable to say whether it was the voice or the data recorder. The other box was still missing Thursday, and authorities feared it had been stolen.

The crash site was sealed off several hours after the crash, but not before hundreds of onlookers went on a looting spree, picking the pockets of the dead and stealing their luggage.

Villagers were also seen carting off baskets of metal from the plane hull.

Cambodia’s government ordered an investigation of the pillage. It will also offer a reward for the return of the missing flight recorder box, which may prove essential to determining the cause of the crash, said Sok Sambaur, chairman of a committee investigating the accident.

Sok Sambaur said the government will ask Russian manufacturers of the Tupolev-134 aircraft to come to Phnom Penh to help determine the cause of the accident.

A Vietnam Airlines engineer, Tith Chantha, said that the plane was at least 12 years old but was in ``very good condition before leaving Ho Chi Minh airport.″ He said monsoon rains may have cut visibility for the crew.

Vietnam Airlines Flight 815 was about 2,000 feet high on a landing approach when it last communicated with the tower. Three minutes later, the plane dove into palm trees and stands of bamboo, then exploded.

At the Phnom Penh hospital, where a lecture hall had been converted into a morgue, hundreds of relatives and friends gingerly lifted white sheets covering the corpses and wailed when they found a loved one underneath. One woman numbly clutched the lifeless hand of a victim.

Clouds of incense filled the air at a makeshift altar set up under a tent at the hospital, where a memorial service was planned Friday. About 20 South Koreans performed an impromptu Christian service Thursday, singing hymns and praying.

The airline’s spokesman in Hanoi, Nguyen Chan, said the passengers included 21 people from Taiwan, 21 from South Korea, three Cambodians, two Chinese, two Vietnamese, an Australian, a Briton, a Canadian, a Japanese, five Hong Kong residents including one British passport holder, and an unidentified man.

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