Rescuers pulled 31 bodies from the sea off the southern coast of Myanmar yesterday, one day after a military plane went missing with 122 soldiers, family members and crew, prompting tears from relatives of those aboard and donations from those wishing to help.
Two men, 21 women and eight children were among the bodies found in the Andaman Sea near the coastal town of Launglon by navy and civilian ships, according to a statement from the military.
“I only want to cry, I have nothing,” said a shaky-voiced Yuzana, 19, whose parents and younger brother were on the aircraft when it went missing on Wednesday.
The weekly flight, from several coastal towns to Myanmar’s largest city of Yangon, had been carrying the three to a planned reunion after a two-year-long separation.
“My father said he bought a mobile phone for me. My mom bought a bag for my school,” Yuzana, who uses one name, told Reuters by telephone.
Scores of rescue workers in the fishing village of Sanlan, about 600 km (372 miles) from Yangon, braved stormy weather to carry ashore the dead, wrapped in plastic, from a military ship.
Many bodies had fragmented into several pieces and no victim wearing a life jacket has yet been recovered, said Hla Thein, one of those directly involved in the rescue.
Twenty-nine of the bodies have been sent to the military hospital in Dawei for forensic examination.
More than a dozen relatives of those on board the aircraft gathered at a crisis centre in an army base in the southern coastal town of Myeik, some weeping, pictures released by the military showed.
Nine navy ships, five military planes and two helicopters will keep up the search for survivors for a second day, assisted by civilian boats, the military said.
Families of the Tatmadaw (Army, Navy and Air Force) specifically requested that people not post photos of the dead bodies on social media as they are graphic and upsetting, said a statement released by the Office of the Commander-in-Chief.
The Chinese-made Y-8-200F transport plane lost contact 29 minutes after takeoff while flying at 18,000 feet (5,485 metres) over the Andaman Sea, about 43 miles (70 km) west of the town of Dawei, the military said.
An aircraft wheel, two life jackets and some bags with clothes – believed to be from the missing plane – were found earlier.
Some patches of oil were spotted some 16 nautical miles (18 miles) from Dawei, the military said.
The cause of the incident has yet to be confirmed.
Survivors are “very unlikely” more than 24 hours after the plane lost contact, despite warm sea temperatures in the area, said Charitha Pattiaratchi, a coastal oceanography expert at the University of Western Australia.
Myanmar authorities might soon change their focus from rescue to salvage, aiming to collect debris and investigate the cause of the accident, he added.
The plane was carrying 122 passengers, 108 of those soldiers and their family members, including 14 crew members. Among the 108 were 15 children, 58 adults and 35 soldiers.
The military said the plane was operated by “seasoned pilot” Lieutenant Colonel Nyein Chan with 3,162 flying hours, two co-pilots and a flight engineer.
All military personnel on board are low- to mid-ranking officers, a passenger list released by the military shows.
It is the rainy season in Myanmar, but a civil aviation official said the weather had been “normal” with good visibility when the plane took off.
Commander-in-Chief (Air Force) General Khin Aung Myint and senior military officers met with the relatives of the victims of the plane crash at a local airbase in Myeik yesterday and consoled and presented cash assistance provided by the families of the Tatmadaw to them.
Since Wednesday, government and private donors have donated money to the families of the victims. The aircraft, bought in March 2016, had a total of 809 flying hours. It was carrying 2.4 tonnes of supplies, the military said.
Nicknamed the “air camel” in Chinese, the multi-purpose aircraft was approved for production in 1980 and is still being produced by Shaanxi Aircraft Corporation, a unit of state-owned Aviation Industry Corp of China. The four-engine turboprop is used in developing countries, including China and Sudan.
If all 122 on board were killed, the incident could be the deadliest involving the Chinese model, said Chen Xiao, an editor at Beijing-based Aerospace Knowledge magazine.
Aircraft accidents, involving both civilian and military planes, are not uncommon in Myanmar.
A military helicopter crashed last June in central Myanmar, killing three military personnel on board. Five military were killed in February last year when an air force aircraft crashed in the capital, Naypyitaw, media reported.
“Whether it’s military or commercial aviation, it requires a major overhaul in terms of infrastructure, fleet, training, technology and equipment,” said Shukor Yusof, an aviation expert and founder of Malaysia-based consultancy Endau Analytics.—Reuters/Wa Lone, Yimou Lee, Aye Win Myint