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Blast destroys Thai prime minister's flight at airport

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March 4, 2001 


BANGKOK- (AP) - An explosion and fire gutted a jetliner minutes before Thailand's prime minister was to board it Saturday, killing one crew member and injuring seven others, officials said. A bombing cannot be ruled out, they said.

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was on his way to Bangkok International Airport when the Boeing 737-400 parked on the tarmac went up in flames, 35 minutes before scheduled departure from the domestic terminal.

No passengers or pilots were on board the special Thai Airways flight TG1144 to the northern resort town of Chiang Mai. Besides Thaksin, the plane was scheduled to carry 148 passengers on the 70-minute flight.

Seven crew and ground staff were injured and one body of a cabin crew member was found inside the charred wreckage of the plane, said Lt. Gen. Jongrak Juthanont, the deputy national police chief.

Thai Airways president Pisit Kulsalasaiwanond said "there was a loud noise that sounded like an explosion" before the fire started.

"At this moment we will investigate all factors. We do not rule out any possible cause, but we don't want to speculate," he told a news conference.

All bags had been loaded on the plane after being X-rayed, he said. The X-ray machine at the domestic terminal had been out of operation early Saturday, but it had been fixed before the luggage was loaded, Pisit said.

The explosion triggered a massive fire that took about an hour to control. The aircraft was destroyed, and its charred shell broke in the middle with the nose collapsing on the ground. Only its tail with the airline's logo remained intact.

The plane's captain, Chusak Pachaiwuth, told reporters it was impossible for the plane to explode because of an internal malfunction if the engines had not started.

He said workers had just finished refueling the plane when the blast happened. The fuel tanks, located in the plane's wings, were intact, he said, indicating that burning fuel was not the cause of the explosion.

Thaksin's bodyguards, who were at the terminal, heard "a big bang" and saw the plane going up in flames, Thaksin's spokesman, Suranan Vejjajiva, said.

Thaksin, who has to attend a meeting Sunday in Chiang Mai, flew on a military plane.

He told reporters that he wasn't worried about the incident, but said his security personnel have curtailed his movements.

"I hope it was an accident but for now we will set up an investigation. The security has been increased and I cannot go anywhere I want," he said.

Thaksin, one of Thailand's richest businessmen, took office only last month after an unprecedented victory in the Jan. 6 elections.

Aviation authorities cut off power at the domestic terminal and diverted all incoming flights to an airport in the nearby Chonburi province before resuming normal operations three hours later. International flights were not affected.

The plane was insured for dlrs 50.171 million, the deputy communications minister, Pracha Maleenond, said.

This is the worst tragedy for the national airlines since the Dec. 11, 1998 crash of an Airbus A310-200 that killed 101 people. The domestic flight from Bangkok to Surat Thani, 530 kilometers (330 miles) to the south, went down in a swamp while trying to land.

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