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Typhoon relief helicopter crashes in Taiwan's mountains
Taiwan News, Staff Writer
2009-08-11 04:44 PM
TAIPEI (Taiwan News) – A relief helicopter with three people on board crashed in Pingtung County Tuesday as the race continued to find more survivors of Typhoon Morakot in the area.

The official death toll rose to 41 Monday, with 60 people missing and 35 injured. The latest rise was the result of rescue workers finding 12 unidentified bodies in the Kaohsiung County townships of Liukui and Namahsia late on Monday.

Amid the relief efforts, a UH-1H helicopter operated by the National Airborne Service Corps reportedly crashed against a mountain in the Santimen area on the border between Kaohsiung and Pingtung County around 3:30 Tuesday afternoon. The aircraft was on its way from Wutai in Pingtung County with a crew of three to drop supplies to the village of Ila, reports said.

Eyewitnesses apparently saw wreckage in a ravine, but were unable to tell how the helicopter had crashed or whether there were any survivors. The NASC denied early media reports that the helicopter had been carrying five crew members and one nurse. Another helicopter and a ground team were on their way to provide assistance.

The helicopter allegedly found wreckage and saw the bodies of the three crew members, some media reported Tuesday evening.

The crew were named as pilot Chang Shun-fa, 42, with more than 3,200 hours of flying experience, pilot Wang Tsung-li, 47, who had flown more than 5,000 hours, and technician Huang Mei-chih, 43.

The helicopter was 33 years old and had flown 36 hours since passing its most recent technical review on June 15, the NASC said. On Tuesday, it flew six missions, airlifting 50 people.

Media speculation for the cause of the disaster ranged from poor visibility in the mountains to overloading with supplies.

Helicopters have played a key role in the rescue effort, airlifting a total of about 266 people over 40 flights to and from several flooded villages in Kaohsiung County Tuesday.

Attention has focused on Hsiaolin Village in Chiahsien Township because eyewitnesses said hundreds of people might have been buried alive after a mountainside collapsed.

Because of poor weather conditions and the destruction of all overland access roads and bridges by the typhoon, efforts to reach the village have been extremely difficult.

Hsiaolin has an official population of more than 1,300, but unclear how many were staying there during the typhoon. Estimates of people still missing and maybe buried under the mud went up to 600, though no official confirmation of that total.

Army helicopters found their way, sometimes evading banks of fog, to Hsiaolin. Since they found no place to land, soldiers descended into the mud to help airlift survivors. Those included people who reportedly spent four days at the entrance to a tunnel above a wide stream. The military reported there was no immediate trace of buildings or other survivors.

The helicopters airlifted residents out and down to a school in Chishan, where scuffles erupted between police and residents who felt the rescue effort was progressing too slowly, reports said. A shouting match also erupted between residents of Hsiaolin and of Namahsia, with accusations that the evacuations were focusing too much on the former.

At another major disaster scene, near Chichi in Nantou County, rescue workers found the body of a man and a woman inside a car they pulled out of the mud along a road. They were unable to identify the two victims, but the car belonged to a man from Taishan in Taipei County, officials said. A total of seven vehicles carrying 13 people were believed to have been swept into the river. Rescue workers found a fourth car Tuesday.

Premier Liu Chao-shiuan encountered the angry relatives of the victims during a visit to the area.

Also in Nantou County, in the village of Shenmu, a building at the Lunghua Elementary School was surrounded by quick-flowing streams and in danger of being swept away or collapsing into the river like the Jinshuai Hotel in Chihpen, Taitung County, on Sunday.

In a separate incident, 67 workers on a water project in Taoyuan, Kaohsiung County, near the Tsengwen Reservoir were all reported safe. On Sunday, there were reports that 14 of the workers had disappeared when floodwaters swept through the building they were sleeping in.

Meanwhile, more than 700,000 households were still without running water in Southern Taiwan, including an estimated 370,000 in the Tainan area, reports said. Cable stations showed residents lining up with buckets and plastic containers to collect water. Shops reported first a run on bottled water and later on plastic bottles.

The Nanhua Reservoir, responsible for supplying Tainan and the northern part of Kaohsiung City, would take three to four days before it could function normally again, officials said.

The Taiwan Power Corporation said 50,000 households were still without power nationwide.

The government announced a package of subsidy measures for the families of typhoon victims. Following the example set after the 921 earthquake, the government would pay NT$1 million for each person confirmed dead or missing, and NT$250,000 for gravely injured.

Separate subsidies were also available for people forced to move, for flooding, and for renting another place, though those could not be combined. Students from typhoon victim families were eligible for subsidies from the Ministry of Education.

The Council of Labor Affairs said it was recruiting 700 cleaners from people affected by the typhoon for a period of up to three months.

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