PAKSE, Laos (AP) — Teams of French and Thai experts plied the muddy Mekong River with high-tech sonar equipment Saturday, ramping up the search for the remnants of a Lao Airlines plane and more than a dozen bodies still missing from the crash three days earlier.
On the riverbank, a group of orange-robed Buddhist monks performed a prayer ceremony for the 49 people who were aboard Lao Airlines flight QV301, all of whom are presumed to be dead.
The ATR-72 turboprop aircraft crashed Wednesday as it prepared to land in stormy weather at Pakse Airport in southern Laos. The plane then skidded into the Mekong River, the largest in Southeast Asia, and disappeared. Half of those aboard the flight were foreigners from eight different countries.
By Saturday afternoon, 36 bodies had been found and authorities were still trying to identify several of them, said Yakua Lopangkao, director-general of Laos' Department of Civil Aviation. The ATR aircraft was delivered in March, raising questions as to why a virtually new plane crashed.
Until Saturday, the search for bodies and the plane's flight data recorder, or black box, had been stalled by lack of manpower and equipment in the poor Southeast Asian country, which lacks capabilities in disaster management.
"We have not been able to locate the plane yet, but the teams from France and Thailand have arrived," Yakua said. "We have split them into several teams to do simultaneous searches at two or three spots. We believe that one of these spots is where we will find the black box."
The French and Thai teams set out on small boats Saturday to scan the water's surface with the sonar equipment, a stark contrast to previous days of searching that included Lao villagers peering into the murky water from long-tail boats.
Thai navy scuba divers were conducting underwater searches for the flight data and voice recorders, which could help determine whether the crash was caused by human error or a technical problem. Thailand also sent a C-130 military transport plane with specialists and equipment, including several high-tech sonar systems, to locate objects on the river floor.
France's air accident investigation agency, the BEA, said it sent four investigators to help Laos with the probe. It said the team would work with technical advisers from ATR, the French-Italian manufacturer of the aircraft.
The chief pilot has been identified as 56-year-old Young San of Cambodia, who had more than 30 years of flying experience.
Cambodia's civil aviation security director, Mak Sam Ol, said he was briefed by Lao authorities on final instructions from the control tower.
"Due to a storm and strong winds, as the plan approached landing, the air controller told the pilot to change course," Mak Sam Ol said in a telephone interview. "He followed instructions, but the plane faced strong storms and couldn't get through."
According to the airline, 44 passengers and five crew members 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.
Associated Press writers Jocelyn Gecker and Thanyarat Doksone in Bangkok and Sopheng Cheang in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, contributed to this report.