Working waste-deep in water, guards from the prime minister's personal elite bodyguard unit waded Thursday through the floating debris of the crash of an AN-12 cargo plane, retrieving boxes from the plane's twisted body and carrying them to a waiting boat.
The propellers of the Russian built AN-12 were at opposite ends of the rice paddy. The plane's hull - loaded with 1, 178 boxes of Nike athletic shirts fresh from a Phnom Penh garment factory being shipped to Singapore, lay in between.
At 10:30pm October 17, the AN-12 XU365 cargo plane became the second decades-old Russian made Antonov plane to crash in Cambodia in four months.
The plane was operated by local cargo carrier Imtrec Aviation Co. Ltd. established in Phnom Penh in March 2000. Imtrec officials could not be reached for comment. Their web site said the company has five planes.
The southbound plane ran into heavy lightening shortly after take off, investigators said. After losing power in two of its engines, it attempted to return to Phnom Penh International Airport, but crashed in a rice paddy south of the city in Kandal province.
"The plane encountered an incident during take off about 140 kilometres from the airport. They were 6.7 kilometres up, and two of the planes engines were struck by lightening," said Nhim Vanda. Vanda is vice president of the National Committee for Disaster Management, and was recently promoted to four star general by Prime Minister Hun Sen for his work on the June plane crash in southern Cambodia in Kampot. The AN-24 passenger plane went down in Bokor Mountains, killing all 22 people on board.
"This caused the engines to stop working and begin leaking fuel. So the pilot decided to return but while they were flying back the other two engines also stopped working," he said.
The plane went down in O'Tatim, Takuch village, Deum Roeus Commune, in Kandal Steung district of Kandal province, about 20 kilometres from the airport. None of the five crew members on board were killed. One suffered a broken leg and the others received scrapes and grazes. All were taken to Calmette Hospital.
150 of Hun Sen's bodyguards spend the night in a rice paddy on October 17 to prevent looting of the plane's contents - Nike athletic shirts. Top right, one of the five person crew of the AN-12 is carried from the wreckage to receive medical treatment. Middle right, a child carries away a piece of the plane. The AN-12 broke into around 200 pieces when it crashed into a rice paddy in Kandal province. Bottom right, the goods are unloaded onto boats to prevent looting. Next right, guards went on during the day to prevent any looting of the goods or the plane.
"After I arrived I picked up the pilot and found five people on board who were all injured," said Vong Sopheak, a guard who was one of the first to arrive at the crash site Thursday night.
Local fishermen were the first to reach the scene. A villager said he was watching television when he heard a low-flying aircraft and then a loud explosion. He said he and others waded through the rice paddies, which were by then coated with airplane fuel, and found the wreck.
"A crowd of villagers went to the plane.I went too but I didn't reach the site as there was too much water," said Chan Chhok, 19, a villager. "Many villagers had picked up boxes of shirts [the plane's cargo]. Some took so much they couldn't carry all so they dropped it on the way and I picked up about 5 shirts. About one hour later the police arrived."
"The plane had broken into about 200 pieces - it was scattered around the area," he said. "You can see many villagers from the district flocking to the area to try and get metal pieces of the plane. We don't know what will happen yet, whether they will break the plane into pieces and remove it from the area, I don't know."
Fear of looting prompted the deployment of 150 of Hun Sen's bodyguards who stood watch over the plane during the night. By the next morning, armed soldiers sat on each of the four large chunks of the AN-12. Fifteen boats were being used to extract the remaining cargo from the plane, said Vanda.
An Imtrec pilot, Ali Sher, of Uzbekistan, was wading through the water surrounding the plane. He said he was pleased with the help from the Cambodian authorities, but was saddened by the accident.
"I know the pilots, they were my friends," he said. "Bad weather was the main reason for the crash. Forty minutes before the plane crashed, the pilot made contact - the plane crashed one hour and 20 minutes after take off. The oil tankers cracked - the plane was losing oil. The bad weather affected the four engines' oil tanks - they cracked. The crew knew they had problems forty minutes into the flight."
The crash of the AN-12 once again puts a spotlight on Cambodia's aviation industry, which has been under fire for years.
But Vanda said bad weather and bad luck were, once again, to blame.
"But this is not only in Cambodia. In Thailand they have the same problem where bad weather causes a plane crash. We do not want this kind of incident to happen, but it was caused by bad weather and it was an accident." In 1999, an independent safety audit of Cambodia's State Secretariat of Civil Aviation (SCCA) raised serious questions about Cambodia's domestic flight safety standards.The review found serious shortcomings in the SCCA's legal framework and its licensing and personnel training procedures. But the SCCA suppressed dissemination of the audit's findings.
In June 2007, following the crash of PMT flight U4 241 in Bokor Mountains, Him Sarun, chief of cabinet at SCCA, said the body had implemented a number of the recommendations of the ICAO and was preparing for another audit.