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160 Feared Dead as S. Africa Jet Plunges Into Sea

November 29, 1987|From Times Wire Services

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — A South African Airways jumbo jet with 160 people aboard plunged into the Indian Ocean off the island of Mauritius on Saturday shortly after the pilot reported smoke in the cockpit, officials said.

Search planes reported no sign of survivors.

The Boeing 747 bound for Johannesburg crashed 175 miles northeast of Mauritius 10 minutes before it was scheduled to land in the island nation off the southeast coast of Africa after a 5,000-mile flight from Taiwan.

The passengers came from 11 countries. No Americans were reported aboard.

Officials said pilots of three search planes reported a life raft, debris and suitcases floating in the sea 14 hours after the crash off Mauritius, a holiday resort and refueling point on the route from Taipei to Johannesburg.

Boats Head for Scene

Boats immediately headed for the scene.

There was no contact with the plane after the pilot of Flight 295, Capt. D. J. Uys, who was on his last flight before retiring, reported smoke in the cockpit.

The plane "reported that it was doing an emergency descent from its flight level down to 14,000 feet because it had smoke in the cabin, smoke in the cockpit," Mauritius controller Servan Sing said.

The jet was immediately cleared to begin an instrument landing system approach, he said.

"It said, 'Roger.' It was going, moving for that, going to that point, and after that we had no contact," Sing said.

There was no immediate indication of what caused the smoke.

There was no further sign of the plane until rescue leaders extended the search pattern out to sea and the debris was spotted a few minutes before dusk.

"The latest news is that some debris has been spotted," South African Transport Minister Eli Louw told reporters waiting at Johannesburg's Jan Smuts Airport.

"There is also a dinghy and some suitcases floating on the approach route of the aircraft to Mauritius, but there is no sign of survivors," he said.

Spotted by Private Pilot

Air Mauritius spokesman Joseph Yipptong said in a telephone interview from Port Louis, capital of the French-speaking island, that the wreckage was first spotted by a private pilot who volunteered to join the search.

A South African Airways pilot also reported sighting wreckage from the aircraft and a life raft but no sign of life.

Yipptong said that French, American, Australian and South African search planes were withdrawn as darkness fell but that ships were converging on the spot and boats were on the way from Mauritius.

The plane carried 141 passengers and 19 crew members. The SAA office in Taipei did not release a full passenger list but said in a statement that those on board included 30 Taiwanese; 47 Japanese; 70 South Africans, including the crew; three people from Hong Kong; two Australians; two Mauritians, and one person each from Britain, Denmark, Holland, West Germany and South Korea.

Airline officials said that in addition to the registered passengers and crew, a baby not on the register was taken on board in its mother's arms. The baby's nationality was not available.

Relatives Gather at Airport

Anxious relatives gathered at the Johannesburg airport and at an SAA office in Taipei. The Johannesburg airport switchboard was jammed for hours as friends and family tried to get news of the plane.

Taiwanese engineer Vincent Lin and his wife, Sherry Chen, collapsed when they were told that wreckage had been sighted.

They were waiting to meet their 6-year-old daughter, Dolly, who was being brought to South Africa from Taiwan by her grandfather, Tido Lin.

Also waiting at the airport were the family of the pilot, Capt. Uys, 49, who was making the last flight of a 23-year airline career.

Transport Minster Louw told reporters that the crash was the worst in the 53-year history of the state-run airline.

"It's a very sad day for SAA," he said.

The airline has had three fatal crashes in its history, the last in 1968 when a Boeing 707 crashed in South-West Africa (Namibia), killing 122 people.

South African President Pieter W. Botha went on national television to express sympathy for friends and relatives of the victims and to thank the French, U.S., Mauritian and Australian governments for assisting in search operations.

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