A Tragic Wrong Turn

From the moment Singapore Airlines Flight SQ006 taxied away from the gate at Taiwan's Chiang Kai-shek Airport last Tuesday night, Sally Walker felt uneasy. Clutching the armrests of seat 58A, the 46-year-old American stared at the sheets of rain being driven sideways by 60-mile-per-hour winds. At 11:18 p.m., the 747-400 bound for Los Angeles accelerated down the runway. As the aircraft neared takeoff speed, there was a massive jolt, then another. The plane rolled to the left--and exploded. Huge balls of fire shot through the cabin as the craft tore into three parts. "Everything was torched," Walker said later. "It was a nightmare."

Walker, who suffered a leg injury, was one of the lucky ones. Eighty-one of the 179 passengers on SQ006 died, including 24 Americans. The fire consumed the plane's front lower deck; almost all the survivors--including the three pilots--were seated in the upper deck or in the tail section. The disaster struck one of the world's safest planes (the 747-400) operated by one of the world's safest airlines (Singapore Airlines). What went wrong? It wasn't just the harsh weather. As the airline now admits, a disoriented pilot made a tragic mistake, though investigators say it is too early to hold him solely responsible.

As officials from the United States, Singapore and Taiwan began poring over the charred wreckage, it was hard to believe that the storm didn't play a role. Typhoon Xangsane carved a trail of misery across Taiwan, leaving 53 more dead and 10 missing. Near the airport's makeshift morgue, where Buddhist monks prayed and victims' relatives grieved, one woman pounded the Singapore Airlines ticket counter and shouted: "How could you take off in this weather?" Officials said that both wind and visibility were within "safe operational limits."

It soon became clear that something even more disturbing had happened: the plane's veteran pilot, Captain C. K. Foong, apparently steered the 747 onto the wrong runway, one that was parallel to the correct runway but under reconstruction. A series of barricades and two large hydraulic shovels sat in the path of the 747. According to the flight-data recorder, when the plane reached 163mph, the pilot exclaimed: "S--t! Something there!" A second later, there was a loud crash, followed by other noises; four seconds later, the tape shut off. Investigators now say the plane collided with the two backhoes. How did the pilot stray onto the wrong runway? Perhaps because of the extreme conditions. Investigators are also checking to see if the red warning light on runway O5R was working. If so, it should have alerted the pilot that the runway was closed.

The tragedy has, at least, reopened a debate about airport safety. In severe weather, should airports close or--as most do now--leave takeoff and landing decisions to pilots? The question is particularly pointed in Taiwan, which has one of the highest accident rates in the world: 15 accidents in the past five years. But now it even stings Singapore Airlines' unblemished 28-year safety record. The airline seemed in denial at first: an hour after the accident, one spokesman said, "There are no casualties, thankfully." But on Friday, the company acknowledged that 81 people were dead--all because of a wrong turn.