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Fuel tank hole suspected in plane blaze

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By Kyoko Hasegawa in Tokyo


Article from: Agence France-Presse


A HOLE in the fuel tank of a China Airlines airliner could explain why it burst into a fireball moments after landing, investigators in Japan say.


All 165 passengers and crew fled to safety, sliding down emergency chutes with minutes to spare as the Boeing 737-800 burst into fire and then exploded after landing on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa on Monday.


As investigators from Japan, Taiwan and the United States sift through the jet's charred remains, the Japanese side said it discovered the fuel tank had been pierced.


"We spotted a hole in a fuel tank," the transport ministry's investigative division said in a brief statement.


"We suspect that oil leaked from this hole and spilled from the right wing to the outside."


Jiji Press and Kyodo News reported that investigators believe the tank was pierced by a bolt in the structure.


Investigators have already recovered the airliner's black box to analyse the pilots' conversations.


China Airlines, Taiwan's leading carrier, has offered its apologies - its chief executive flew immediately to Okinawa to console frightened tourists - and announced compensation for passengers.


The company, which has reported nine fatal accidents since 1970, has also painted over its logo on the wrecked aircraft in an apparent bid to minimise bad publicity.


Its chairman, Philip Wei, also offered his resignation to the board.


Wei "tendered his verbal resignation shortly after the incident in a bid to shoulder his responsibility," a China Airlines official told AFP in Taipei.


Analysts said the incident is a setback for the airline, which launched a safety overhaul after February 1998 when a plane ploughed into a row of houses in Taipei, killing 196 passengers and crew and six people on the ground.


In Tokyo, Ho Han-yeh, head of the airline's Japanese branch office, visited the transport ministry to apologise for the blaze, and later bowed deeply in front of reporters.


He reiterated that the company had not found any problem with the aircraft in its annual inspection last month.


The carrier also announced a compensation plan for passengers on Monday's flight from Taipei to Okinawa, which is a popular tourist destination that lies closer to Taiwan than Tokyo.


Business class passengers will be entitled to $T80,000 ($3,000) and those in economy to $T65,000 ($2,400) company spokesman Johnson Sun said in Taipei.



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