kampot town – Almost 48 hours after first being reported missing in Kampot province, the wreckage of PMT Air’s flight U4 241 from Siem Reap International Airport to Sihanoukville’s recently re-opened Kang Keng Airport was discovered early Wednesday morning. None of the 22 passengers and crew survived, officials said.
Carefully maneuvering a Eurocopter “Squirrel” AS 350 beneath a blanket of thick cloud in Kampot’s mountainous Borei Bokor area, New Zealander David Taylor, a pilot with the Phnom Penh-based Helicopters Cambodia, made the first sighting of the downed aircraft at around 7am.
Taylor, whose company joined the search mission early on Monday, said that he had wanted to scour that particular area from day one but had been prevented by atrocious weather conditions. With a break in the weather evident early Wednesday morning, Taylor took off at first light from Kampot town with two medics from the British de-mining NGO HALO Trust.
Coming in under the clouds in the target area, Taylor said that broken trees on the top of a mountain formed a trail to the crash site.
The Russian-built Antonov An-24, which was carrying 13 South Korean and three Czech passengers and a crew made up of five Cambodians and one Russian pilot, appeared to have clipped the top of the mountain, lost its left wing and plunged into a gorge-like formation on Phnom Kraper, several of those who saw the crash site said.
Taylor said that he was able to set his helicopter down around 200 meters from the wreck. The Halo Trust medics on board dispatched but there were “no signs of life,” he said.
“If they had got up just a couple of hundred feet higher, they would have got [over],” Taylor said later on Wednesday while describing where the Antonov had crashed and the blanket of cloud that had probably obscured the doomed pilot’s view as he approached Sihanoukville.
News of the plane’s discovery set off an airlift from Kampot town’s provincial stadium that started at around 8 am.
Hundreds of troops, mostly members of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s personal bodyguard unit, and Ministry of Health medical staff waited to board five of the RCAF’s Russian-built Mi-8 transport helicopters.
A Korean medical team was also boarding Taylor’s Eurocopter to reach the scene, taking with them supplies to treat possible survivors. However, as the first of the heavy-lift Russian helicopters returned around 40 minutes after the first departures, there was no news of survivors and only descriptions of a badly mangled plane in the forest.
At the stadium to pick up more supplies before returning to the crash site, Kim Seong Nyeo of the Korean doctors’ team said that the plane was destroyed on impact but that it had not burst into flames. She declined to comment on survivors.
Approximately two dozen Korean and international news agency reporters, photographers and television cameramen jostled with local journalists to get on board the departing helicopters. But the military officials in charge of the sports ground, members of the prime minister’s bodyguard unit, said they had orders to keep foreign reporters away.
Tempers flared and arguments erupted as journalists who had been allowed on board some of the helicopters by crew members were kicked off. Around one hour into the airlift operation, several Korean journalists appeared to have been allowed on board one helicopter after military officials had apparently received new orders pertaining to them only.
Military police even tried to remove two members of an international news agency traveling as passengers on Taylor’s Eurocopter, but were unsuccessful because of the advance stage of take-off.
Just after 11:15 am, the first items to arrive back from the crash site at the stadium were the crashed plane’s flight recorders—two orange-colored steel orbs around the size of standard footballs. They were carried to the boot of an awaiting car and driven away.
The official pronouncement that no one had survived was made by Hun Sen at a press conference in Kampot town, making the crash Cambodia’s worst since a 1997 Vietnam Air flight crashed near Phnom Penh’s then-Pochentong Airport, killing 64.
“No people survived the plane crash,” Hun Sen told reporters. “I would like to express my sadness and pay condolences to the Cambodian, Czech, Korean and Russian [victims],” he said. “I cannot say that we are glad to have found the crashed plane, but we can say we are relieved,” he added.
Hun Sen also defended the accident-prone PMT Air, saying that the company’s plane was not at fault. Poor weather conditions were to blame, he said, adding that a T-28 propeller aircraft crashed in the same area in the 1960s.
“We share the company’s tragedy. I will study all companies to see whether they have old planes, and if they are old, we will not let them fly,” he said.
Hun Sen also asked civil aviation authorities to study the approach route to Sihanoukville that the plane had taken and give recommendations on whether or not it should be used in the future.
Nhim Vanda, first vice president of the National Committee for Disaster Management, said late Wednesday evening that all the bodies had been removed from the crash site and sent to Phnom Penh by helicopter.