PAKSE, Laos (AP) — Exasperated officials in Laos said Friday they lack the equipment and manpower to locate the fuselage and more than 20 bodies still unaccounted for two days after a plane crashed and disappeared into the Mekong River.
International experts arrived from France and Thailand to help with forensics and locating the flight data recorder, which could help explain why the virtually new Lao Airlines ATR-72 turboprop crashed.
Heavy rain forced a suspension Friday of the search for bodies and the plane. Lao Airlines flight QV301 crashed Wednesday as it prepared to land in stormy weather at Pakse Airport in southern Laos. All 49 people on board, more than half of whom were foreigners, are presumed dead.
As of Friday afternoon 27 bodies were found, said Yakua Lopangkao, director-general of Lao's Department of Civil Aviation. He said rescuers still had not pinpointed the location of the plane's fuselage in the vast, muddy waterway.
Lao Transport Minister Sommad Pholsena expressed open frustration as he awaited the arrival of more help at the crash site. "It's very difficult to find (bodies) under water," the transport minister told reporters. "If we could find (the plane), we would have found it already."
Lao Airlines has said the plane ran into extremely bad weather as it prepared to land at Pakse. No further details on the investigation or circumstances of the crash have been released. The crash occurred about 7 kilometers (4 miles) from the airport.
Witnesses interviewed on LTV, Lao national television, described a heavy storm and dark skies when the accident happened around 4 p.m. One man said he heard a thundering noise overhead and looked up to see a plane shaking violently as it flew through the tops of trees.
"It looked like it was bouncing in the sky," he said. "Then the plane came lower and lower. Then there was an explosion," he said, adding that he didn't see the crash but saw flames from a distance. "There was fire shooting high up."
The plane is believed to have then skidded from land into the water and sunk. According to the airline, 44 passengers and five crew were on the flight. The passengers included 16 Lao nationals, seven French, six Australians, five Thais, three Koreans, three Vietnamese and one person each from China, Malaysia, Taiwan and the United States. A person who had been listed as a Canadian was instead added to the list of Vietnamese.
Thailand is deeply involved in the search, providing skilled manpower that its poorer neighbor lacks. Thai Transport Minister Chadchart Sittipunt said the Thai navy initially sent scuba divers but their work was complicated by strong currents, deep water of up to 10 meters (32 feet) and poor visibility in the muddy river. He said navy trawlers were being sent Friday to sweep the river with nets to try to locate the fuselage, along with a Thai forensics team to help identify bodies.
"We think the plane broke into two pieces. The tail of the plane contains the black box," Chadchart said in a telephone interview after meeting with his Lao counterpart in Pakse. "It is believed that many bodies of the passengers are still stuck in the plane, or else they would have surfaced on the river."
The Thai air force said it had sent a C-130 transport plane with specialists and equipment including a large scanner to locate metal objects. He said a team of Singaporean experts was arriving Friday with equipment to help locate the black box, or flight data recorder, which stores technical data from the flight.
France's accident investigation agency said it sent four investigators to help Laos with the probe into the cause of the crash. It said the team would work with technical advisers from ATR, the French-Italian manufacturer of the aircraft, which has said it delivered the plane to Lao Airlines in March.
Associated Press writers Thanyarat Doksone, Jocelyn Gecker and Chris Blake in Bangkok contributed to this report.