Search teams have retrieved the main cabin of a Lao Airlines plane which plunged into the Mekong River killing all 49 people on board, officials say.
The recovery operation involved a large crane that lifted the midsection of the turboprop ATR-72 from the fast-flowing waters, said Yakua Lopankao, director general of Laos’ Department of Civil Aviation on Wednesday.
“It was tough because the current was strong,” he told AFP of the operation that was carried out on Tuesday, nearly a week after the nation’s worst known air disaster.
So far, bodies of at least 43 of the victims have been recovered from the swollen river in Laos, some many kilometres downstream from the crash site.
More than half of the 49 passengers and crew were foreigners from some 10 countries, including six from Australia.
Search teams from neighbouring Thailand have been scouring the river for bodies, along with experts from the airline and the French-Italian aircraft maker.
On Saturday, the airline said it had identified 14 of the 32 bodies hauled from the river by that point.
Two Australian passengers, the Cambodian captain and several members of the crew were among those named so far.
Lao Airlines said the aircraft hit “extreme” bad weather, while witnesses described seeing the plane buffeted by strong winds before plummeting into the Mekong and sinking to the bottom on October 16.
Experts from the French aviation safety agency BEA, who are helping the search operation, said Monday they had detected the aircraft’s two “black boxes” in the tail, which may hold crucial evidence as to the cause of the crash.
But efforts to reach them were hampered by poor visibility and strong river currents.
Yakua said the devices had yet to be retrieved.
“We could not see the plane’s head or tail,” he told AFP, adding that the wreckage was winched from about nine metres under water.
According to an updated passenger list released late Saturday by the airline, there were 16 Laotians, seven French travellers, six Australians, five Thais, three South Koreans, two Vietnamese, and one national each from the United States, Canada, Malaysia, China and Taiwan.
There were also five crew, including the Cambodian captain.
Founded in 1976, Lao Airlines serves domestic airports and destinations in China, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Impoverished Laos, a one-party communist state, has seen 29 fatal air accidents since the 1950s, according to the Aviation Safety Network.
In 2010 the United Nations’ air safety arm, the International Civil Aviation Organisation, found Laos was just above the world average for all factors except airworthiness and operations, which were recorded as marginally below global norms.
Previously the country’s worst air disaster was in 1954, when 47 people died in an Air Vietnam crash near Pakse, the organisation said.