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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

225 Die in China Airlines Crash

PENGHU, Taiwan -- A Hong Kong-bound China Airlines jet broke up into four parts in the sky before crashing into the Taiwan Strait on Saturday with 225 people on board, the chief Taiwanese crash investigator said Sunday.

Military radar provided a clear picture of the Boeing 747-200 splitting up into four pieces about 20 minutes after takeoff in Taipei, said Kay Yong, managing director of Taiwan's Aviation Safety Council.

"There was an in-flight break up above the altitude of 9,000 meters. We are very positive about this," he said.

Taiwan's government Sunday ordered China Airlines to ground four other Boeing 747-200 planes in its fleet until inspections show that they are safe. The government also demanded the airline, Taiwan's largest carrier, step up inspections of its 46 passenger jets.

Rough seas slowed the search for bodies and debris from the Taiwanese airliner. No survivors were found Sunday and 78 bodies were pulled from the oily water that reeked of fuel.

Swells up to three meters high battered the fishing boats and coast guard ships scanning the crash site north of the Taiwanese island chain of Penghu, about 50 kilometers off Taiwan's western coast.

Officials still did not know what caused the crash of Flight CI611. The pilots did not send distress signals before the Boeing 747-200 disappeared from radar screens.

The transcript of the pilots' conversation with the control tower was released Sunday, and it made no mention of problems with the plane.

James Chang, a China Airlines vice president, declined to speculate on a possible cause. But he said the accident was strange.

"At such a high altitude, 10,600 meters, to have something go wrong -- and the pilot didn't even have time to send a distress signal. Now, that's a big question mark," Chang said.

But later, Tsai Duei, a vice transportation minister, said the signals detected were not of the frequency emitted by the recorders. The signals may have come from the plane's emergency locater transmitters, officials said.

Near the crash site Sunday morning, the smell of fuel was thick in the air and there was a rainbow-colored glimmer on the sea from an oily slick as big as a football field.

Rescue officials said 78 bodies have been found. The passengers included 190 Taiwanese, 14 people from Macau and Hong Kong, nine Chinese citizens, one Singaporean and one Swiss citizen.

The Boeing 747-200 had been flying for 22 years and China Airlines was to retire the jet next month and deliver it to the small regional carrier Orient Thai Airline, which had already purchased the aircraft, China Airlines said.

China Airlines said the plane was well-maintained and had been completely overhauled last year.

Suspicions that a midair explosion caused the crash were fueled by debris found in rice fields in Taiwan's west coast county of Changhua, near the plane's flight path.

Farmers found scraps of airline magazines, immigration forms and luggage claim stickers with "Flight CI611" printed on them.

More than 400 rescue workers, 22 coast guard boats and two helicopters were searching for bodies and the plane, said Chang Cheh-chin, deputy director of a Penghu-based coast guard unit.

After a series of crashes in the 1990s, China Airlines became known for having one of the world's worst airline safety records -- 12 deadly accidents since 1969.

In recent years, the airline has been aggressively retraining pilots and revamping its safety procedures.

The company published a half-page ad in Taiwan's major Chinese-language papers apologizing for the crash in large, bold Chinese characters.

The apology, signed by company chairman Y.L. Lee, said: "We want to express our deepest regrets to the victims' families and the public. We will do our best to help the families to recover."