XIXI, Taiwan (AP) — Firefighters uncovered ID cards and body fragments as they picked through wreckage Thursday for evidence to identify the victims of a plane crash that killed 48 people on a Taiwanese island.
Hydraulic cranes, meanwhile, lifted twisted chunks of the aircraft from a narrow alley in a village to help about 100 criminal investigators, police and soldiers sort through the rubble for clues on what caused the ATR-72 to crash in stormy weather late Wednesday.
The plane operated by Taiwan's TransAsia Airways was carrying 58 passengers when it crashed while trying to land in the scenic Penghu archipelago in the Taiwan Strait between Taiwan and China.
Identifying bodies that had been dug out of the wreckage overnight was the top priority, a disaster response official said. Family members of the dead were flown in to identify their loved ones.
"Today's biggest challenge was that the street was too narrow and so we had a hard time finding people's identities," said Huang Hsih, a disaster official.
TransAsia said Thursday the plane, which flew from the city of Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan, may have crashed because of the stormy weather trailing behind a typhoon. That raises questions about why aviation authorities let flights resume Wednesday afternoon following some 200 cancellations earlier in the day.
The head of Taiwan's Civil Aviation Administration, Jean Shen, defended the authority's decision to allow those flights, saying weather conditions had met basic requirements for flying, according to Taiwan's Central News Agency.
Speaking to reporters at the crash site, Shen said, however, that the weather seemed to have suddenly deteriorated.
Visibility at the time was adequate at 1,600 meters (one mile), aviation authority spokesman Lee Wan-lee told reporters, and two other planes had landed before TransAsia's flight GE222 crashed.
In the village of Xixi, where the 14-year-old plane went down, disaster crews dug in silence through the dusty, ashen rubble of the aircraft cabin and parts of the eight stone houses destroyed in the crash.
Trucks with hydraulic cranes moved the pieces of wreckage to the airport for further inspection. The plane's black box was found, damaged on the outside.
Just meters (yards) from the wreckage, about a dozen relatives of victims took turns in groups performing funeral rituals led by a Taoist priest in white and yellow robes.
The tearful relatives held photographs of the victims as the priest rang a bell and waved a white strip of cloth tied to a bamboo pole — a ritual believed to help the souls of the deceased find their way in the netherworld.
The airline, which has been operating for 63 years, apologized for the crash and offered victims' families $6,600 in compensation and $27,000 for funeral expenses.
All four crew members died, along with the only foreign nationals, two 23-year-old French women doing student internships at National Taiwan University in Taipei.
Scenes of grief filled the local television networks' broadcasts. The mother of one passenger fell to the ground at the Kaohsiung airport and cried uncontrollably when she learned about the accident. Another covered her face and repeatedly cried, "I have no son."
Among those who perished in the crash was a family of six, including two girls, who were returning to Penghu, and a family of four, the newspaper United Daily News reported.
"How can this be?" said a friend of the family of four, according to the newspaper. "It's been just a few days since we saw them and now we're forever separated by heaven."
The TransAsia crash was Taiwan's first deadly civil aviation accident since 2002, when a China Airlines plane went down shortly after takeoff, killing 225.
Jennings reported from Taipei. Associated Press journalists Wally Santana in Xixi and Gillian Wong in Beijing contributed to this report.