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Utah man may be among dead

79 are killed in fiery plane crash in Taiwan

SHARE Utah man may be among dead

When Jeff Platz called his girlfriend, Cherrie Horner, Monday night he said he was watching a typhoon outside a window in Taipei, Taiwan.

"I just told him to come home safely," Horner said from her Ogden home.

But Horner is almost sure that Platz isn't coming home. She learned Wednesday morning he may be one of 79 people killed in a fiery crash of a Singapore Airlines plane after takeoff late Tuesday.

Platz, 35, was traveling on business for Cellport Systems, a Boulder, Colo., cell phone company. After the accident, Horner logged onto the Internet and saw a photograph of him being wheeled into the hospital on a gurney.

"I know it was him," said Horner. "It gave us some hope."

That changed Wednesday morning when an official at a morgue identified a body that fit the description of Platz, who was wearing a Tag watch he bought in Las Vegas.

Officials won't confirm that Platz is dead without DNA testing, Horner said. She, however, is not hopeful he is alive.

"I've now told the kids," Horner said from her Ogden home. "It's for sure."

Meanwhile, investigators searched Wednesday for a mystery object that the Los Angeles-bound jumbo jet may have hit before catching fire and breaking into three pieces, killing almost half of the 179 people on board. Singapore Airlines defended its pilot's decision to take off in heavy wind and rain.

As emergency workers pulled bodies from the charred blue-and-tan wreckage, early speculation pointed to gusting winds as a possible factor in the Boeing 747-400's accident late Tuesday. But the airline and Taiwanese aviation officials said the veteran pilot wasn't reckless for deciding to fly.

The airline said it believed Flight SQ006 struck an unknown object on the runway.

"He wouldn't be allowed to take off if the weather conditions were very bad," airline spokesman Rick Clements told reporters in Singapore. Clements noted that other planes were taking off.

Fifty-six people were hospitalized and 44 suffered minor or no injuries, Taiwanese civil aviation official Billy K.C. Chang said. About half of the 47 U.S. citizens listed on board were killed.

Chang said that wind speeds and visibility levels did not exceed the maximum limits for closing Chiang Kai-shek International Airport. At the time, the airport was being lashed by nighttime rains ahead of a typhoon.

The pilot, Capt. C.K. Foong, "saw an object on the runway, and he tried to take off to avoid the object, and he hit the object," said Clements, who wouldn't say what the plane might have struck.

Chou Kuang-tsan of the Aviation Safety Council, which investigates Taiwanese air accidents, noted the plane apparently swerved off its runway and onto a spare runway, which was under repair. Chou said it was not clear why the plane veered off the runway.

"We still can't rule out any possibilities," Chou told reporters.

Local TV stations suggested the pilot might have tried to take off from the wrong runway and slammed into construction equipment near the strip. TV reports showed a damaged crane near the accident site. Others speculated that strong winds blew construction debris into the path of the plane.

Chang, the Taiwanese civil aviation official, said he did not believe the plane plowed into the equipment and caught fire.

The airline said there was no evidence that the plane was using the wrong runway. Clements said that the plane's debris flew across the two adjacent runways upon impact and that might have led to speculation about the plane's being on wrong runway.

A flight will leave Thursday from Los Angeles to take U.S. relatives to Taiwan, he said.

Singapore Airlines will provide all families of victims with $25,000 in immediate compensation, Clements said. The accident was the first major one for Singapore Airlines in 28 years of operation.

Speaking in Singapore, the airline's chairman, Michael Fam, said, "We wish to express our sincere regret to all concerned. This is a tragic day for all of us."

The scene was frantic at Chang Gung hospital near the airport where emergency room workers gently lifted injured people from ambulances. Some appeared to be burned. They lay on stretchers with their arms stretched stiffly in front of their torsos.

Y.K. Soong, the hospital's vice superintendent, said, "Most of the survivors were seated in the plane's upperdeck because when the plane tried to go up, 'bang,' it broke into three pieces."

In Los Angeles, David Ralph's family got the telephone call they feared most.

Ralph, a marketing professor at Pepperdine University, and his assistant, Christina Reed, 25, were aboard Singapore Airline Flight SQ006.

But the phone call had good news for the Ralph and Reed families: Both David and Christina had survived.

"We're very fortunate compared to many," said Ralph's 29-year-old son, Sheldon. "We feel very fortunate that God protected him, and we pray for all the other families now that they can hear good news, too."

Another crash survivor was on the phone with his wife in Santa Monica before and after the crash.

John Diaz, 50, an executive with the San Diego Internet music company MP3.com, told his wife before the plane took off that he was angry with himself for boarding it because he didn't feel comfortable with the strong winds and heavy rain at the airport.

He called back less than an hour later on his cell phone and reported his survival of the accident.