The two pilots at the controls of TransAsia Flight GE235 have been hailed as heroes after at least 15 of the 58 passengers on board survived Asia's latest air catastrophe.
The twin-engine turboprop plane, on a flight from Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, to Kinmen island, lost altitude after take-off. As the plane fell to the earth, the pilots appear to have steered for the Keelung River to avoid nearby buildings.
A dramatic video, captured by a camera on a car dashboard, showed the plane spiralling over a road bridge, clipping it with its wing, before plunging into the water. A taxi was damaged, whose driver said he had simply passed out in fear at the moment of impact.
At least 31 people died in the tragedy, and a 2-year-old boy was left fighting for his life. Twelve people were still missing last night. More parts of the plane were lifted out of the river after cranes were used to hoist part of the wreckage.
But experts praised the two main pilots on board, Liao Jiangzhong and Liu Zizhong, suggesting their actions might have contributed to the high number of survivors. Their bodies were among those found at the site.
"This pilot decided to land in a narrow river without buildings because there is a residential area nearby. He did all he could do," Liao Linghui, a Taiwanese aviation expert, said, adding that he felt the plane's captain was a hero.
Captain Liao is a 41-year-old former military pilot.
"If the aircraft is coming down the pilots aim for open spaces where they and the passengers might survive," said David Learmount, from Flightglobal magazine. But he added that it may have been a stroke of luck to land in the river. "They pulled the nose up to try to haul it over the top of the buildings, but when the aircraft has almost stalled, that would stall the wings completely and instead of going up, you go down more steeply."
He said the video showed the plane was "fully stalled" just before the crash.
Aviation chiefs in Taiwan declined to comment until the results of an investigation, but confirmed that there had been three pilots on board with tens of thousands of flying hours under their belts and that the plane had been serviced only a few days ago.
Desmond Ross, an aviation security expert, said the plane appeared to have suffered "a loss of power at a critical point, perhaps just after take-off, and the aircraft became difficult to control." He added: "The video images suggest to me that [the pilot] was in a stall situation with little flight control and it literally fell into the river."
Flight GE235, an ATR 72-600 turboprop that was less than a year old, took off from Taipei's Songshan Airport at 10.53am local time bound for Kinmen off the east coast of China's Fujian province but crashed three minutes later. In a final message before the plane went down one of the pilots reportedly said: "Mayday! Mayday! Engine Flame-out!'"
"We are very eager to find out why this happened to such a new aircraft," Peter Chen, TransAsia's chief executive, said.
A witness, named only as Mr Wu, told local television he had watched in horror from his 25th-floor office as the plane came down. "The whole thing was over in 5 to 10 seconds," he said. "I saw the flight hit the viaduct and fall into the river. I saw a big splash."
A builder who was standing on top of a nearby building called police to report the crash. Police asked if he meant a "remote-control toy plane", according to local television. No, he said, it was a real plane - with passengers on board.
Officials said the plane's flight recorders had been recovered.
As investigators began piecing together the plane's final moments, a temporary "memorial hall" was set up in Taipei.
Friends and relatives of those on board braced themselves for bad news. In China, the fiancee of one Chinese passenger was told that the man she was supposed to marry on Sunday was not coming home. Wang Qinghuo, a Chinese tour guide, had been due to wed this weekend. But while friends celebrated after initial reports suggested he had survived, Xinhua, China's official news agency, later confirmed he was among the dead.
The crash follows a terrible year for aviation in Asia, with regional carriers suffering four major disasters. In July last year 48 people died and 10 were injured when another TransAsia plane, Flight GE222, crashed during a rainstorm after its pilots failed to locate the runway.
Malaysia Airlines lost two planes: Flights MH370, which went missing in March, and MH17, which was shot down over Ukraine in July. The two planes were carrying a total of 537 people.
In December an AirAsia plane carrying 162 people crashed into the Java Sea while flying from Surabaya in Indonesia to Singapore. So far the bodies of only 90 of those people have been found.
The AirAsia disaster fuelled concerns over the rapid expansion of low-cost air travel in the region, with questions raised over pilot training, safety procedures and the excessive reliance on military pilots.
Shock footage result of zest for dashcams
News of yet another devastating plane crash was brought to us in the most terrifying way: with actual footage.
TransAsia flight GE235 can be seen plummeting sideways, missing a block of flats, clipping a taxi and disappearing out of view.
The terrible event was recorded because of an abundance of dashcams - cameras mounted on vehicle dashboards, a trend growing worldwide.
Bryn Brooker, marketing manager at Nextbase, the largest manufacturer of dashcams in Britain (about 56 per cent of the market share), says the devices are part of a desire to "go viral".
Brooker said the last few months had been "insane" for sales, partly attributable to dashcam videos from Russia showing remarkable events such as the city of Chelyabinsk being hit by a meteorite.
Russians have a penchant for dashcams because, according to the World Health Organisation, the country has dangerous driving conditions that see an estimated road-traffic death rate of 18.6 per 100,000 people. By comparison, The USA's death rate is 11.4 and Britain's is 3.7.
Brooker said drivers in Russia were quick to take advantage of dashcams so they could prove who was at fault in accidents and to combat unreliable police and fraud.
RAC Insurance spokesman Simon Williams said dashcam sales had nothing to do with viral video hits. "It's always going to be insurance; no one is motivated by what else they can catch on their camera."
- Telegraph Group Ltd, Independent, DPA