After a second day of searching, Cambodian authorities said Tuesday evening they were still unable to locate what might remain of PMT Air Flight U4 241, which disappeared Monday morning over Kampot province with 22 people aboard.
More than 1,000 soldiers, including members of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s personal bodyguard unit, had been stymied in their search efforts by rain, mud and dense forest, officials said.
“No plane has been found yet. The mission will begin again Wednesday,” RCAF airforce commander General Seoung Samnang said.
Speaking at a graduation ceremony at Phnom Penh’s National Institute of Education, Hun Sen said he shared the grief of the victims’ families and offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to the discovery of the aircraft. Officials said the plane was carrying five Cambodians, 13 South Koreans, three Czech Nationals and a Russian pilot.
The plane’s disappearance was due to foul weather conditions and not mechanical failure, Hun Sen added.
“This is not a matter of machinery. [On Monday] there were fog and dark skies,” he said, adding that he feared those onboard the twin turbo-propelled plane were dead.
“I have a little hope that we can expect some are still alive, but we have to work,” he said.
“Even if we have satellites from above, the forces on the ground still have to reach the site to remove the bodies.”
Hun Sen said he would travel to the site by car as weather conditions were preventing flying by helicopter.
“I take this opportunity to share the sadness of the families of the Cambodian, Korean, Czech and Russian victims,” he said. “Whoever can find the plane will be awarded $5,000,” he added.
Hun Sen also said he had asked the US to train its satellites on Cambodia to aid the search.
The US Embassy said Tuesday it was acting on the premier’s request.
“[C]urrent weather conditions in the search area are hampering our efforts,” embassy spokesman Jeff Daigle wrote in an e-mail.
Ly Thuch, second vice chairman of the National Committee for Disaster Management, said by telephone from Kampot that Hun Sen planned to remain in the province until the plane was found.
A plane bearing family members of the South Korean passengers was expected to arrive in Phnom Penh International Airport on Tuesday evening, he added.
South Korean news agency Yonhap news reported that two South Korean forensic experts and 16 family members were due to arrive in Cambodia on Tuesday.
The apparent crash is likely Cambodia’s first major air traffic accident in almost 10 years, said Eng Suosdey, undersecretary of state at the state Secretariat for Civil Aviation.
In September 1997, 64 passengers and crew died when Vietnam Airlines Flight 815, a Russian-built Tupelov 134, crashed near Phnom Penh. Two boys were the only survivors.
Choy Sry, chief of administration at the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital, said Tuesday that his hospital had been told to prepare to receive bodies.
“Today I was told to prepare the building for all possible bodies,” he said.
PMT General Manager Sar Sareth said his company, which also serves destinations in South Korea, Vietnam and Ratanakkiri province, would continue all regularly scheduled flights.
However Khek Norinda, spokesman for Societe Concessionnaire des Aeroports, which manages airports in Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville, said by telephone that PMT Air’s regularly scheduled 10 am flight from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville had been canceled.
Sar Sareth said that the pilot of Monday’s flight had mentioned poor weather conditions before aviation authorities lost radar contact with the aircraft shortly before 11 am.
He added that his company scrupulously maintained its aircraft.
“My plane will keep the same schedule as before,” he said. “We have to check very carefully before flying.”
SSCA Cabinet Director Him Sarun said he also believed weather conditions had led to the crash as PMT Air had strictly adhered to its maintenance regimen since receiving a warning in May last year.
Civil aviation authorities issued PMT Air a warning letter after the company failed to inform authorities that a flight from Phnom Penh to Ratanakkiri lost the use of an engine.
“We issued a warning letter, and after that they made corrections,” Him Sarun said, adding that he felt PMT Air was a safe airline.
Helicopters involved in the search for the plane were equipped to receive radio signals from the aircraft’s two flight data recorders, also known as “black boxes,” Him Sarun said.
Once retrieved, the data recorders would be sent to Russia for examination by civil aviation authorities there, he added, though he said he believed poor weather conditions had caused the plane’s disappearance.
Khek Norinda said that pilots themselves are responsible for determining if it is safe to fly.
“According to aviation guidelines and practice, the pilot makes up his own decision whether or not to fly after collecting and reviewing information about weather conditions,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Civil aviation authorities are solely responsible for determining the airworthiness of aircraft, he wrote, adding that SCA felt it was premature to discuss its relationship with PMT Air before the cause of Monday’s incident had been finally determined.
Jang Gon-jong, counselor at the South Korean Embassy, said conditions in Kampot were making the search for the plane very difficult.
“It’s been difficult to find the plane even though we and the Cambodian government are searching together,” he said. “Up to now we’ve had many difficulties.”
Jang Gon-jong denied reports that the plane had been located and bodies removed.
“[On Monday] we got a lot of rumors in that area. All of the rumors were proven to be false,” he said.
Three South Korean Embassy staff members including Ambassador Shin Hyun-suk were participating in the search. On Monday, 17 South Korean residents of Cambodia had also volunteered to help, and an unknown number of others had volunteered Tuesday, he said.
(Additional reporting by Kay Kimsong and James Welsh)