Laos said on Friday at least 17 bodies had been recovered after a plane plummeted into the Mekong River killing all on board in the country’s worst known air disaster.
Forty-nine passengers and crew, more than half of them foreigners from nearly a dozen countries, were onboard the Lao Airlines turboprop ATR-72 when it went down in stormy weather on Wednesday.
Volunteers searched the swollen river on boats of all sizes, mustered for the grim task of plucking the dead from the turbulent waters and its muddy banks.
The aircraft sank to the bottom of the river. Rescuers said that recovering the wreckage would be an extremely difficult task, complicated by raging currents.
Soubinh Keophet, a former national footballer and volunteer with a Laos rescue foundation, said one body was discovered some 30 kilometers away from the crash site.
“We traveled 50 kilometers along the river and found four bodies,” he said, after he pulled a recently discovered limb from the water.
“It is very shocking. I am so sad about the incident. It should not have happened,” he said.
Sommad Pholsena, Laos minister of public works and transport, told reporters that 17 bodies had been found so far.
“We have to investigate about the cause of the accident but initially I think it was caused by bad weather,” he said.
A large Laos naval vessel, several smaller Thai and Laos rescue boats, dinghies and a jet ski were seen on the waters on Friday.
The flight from the capital Vientiane was carrying 44 passengers and five crew, including 28 foreigners, when it crashed near Pakse airport in Champasak province, according to officials.
Rows of wooden coffins were seen at a mortuary in Pakse.
Lao Airlines said the aircraft hit “extreme” bad weather while witnesses described seeing the plane buffeted by strong winds.
According to an updated passenger list from the airline, there were 16 Laotians, seven French travelers, six Australians, five Thais, three South Koreans, three Vietnamese, and one national each from the US, Malaysia, China and Taiwan.
The pilot was a Cambodian national said to have “many years” of flying experience.
French-Italian aircraft manufacturer ATR said the twin-engine turboprop aircraft was new and had been delivered in March.
Impoverished Laos, a one-party communist state, has seen 29 fatal air accidents since the 1950s, according to the Aviation Safety Network.
Previously its worst air disaster was in 1954 when 47 people died in an Air Vietnam crash near Pakse, the organization said.