The China Airlines jet that crashed into the Taiwan Strait split into four pieces before plunging into the choppy waters, killing 225 passengers and crew, the chief crash investigator said Sunday.
Search crews on Sunday pulled 83 bodies from seas that reeked of jet fuel, but the Boeing 747-200's flight data and voice recorders, or "black boxes," had not yet been recovered, leaving the accident's cause a mystery.
About 20 minutes after Flight CI611 took off from Taipei's international airport Saturday, radar showed it "disintegrated" into four pieces before dropping off the radar screen, said Kay Yong, managing director of Taiwan's Aviation Safety Council.
"There was an in-flight breakup above the altitude of 30,000 feet. We are very positive about this," Yong said.
What caused the plane to break up?
Yong and other officials would not speculate on what caused the 22-year-old plane to break up.
There was no evidence to suggest that the plane was hit by a missile. Any missile strong enough to reach 35,000 feet likely would have been detected by the United States.
The US National Transportation Safety Board sent three staffers to help Taiwanese officials with the investigation.
James L.S. Chang, a China Airlines vice president, declined to offer a crash theory but said the accident was unusual.
"At such a high altitude ... to have something go wrong �� and the pilot didn't even have time to send a distress signal. Now, that's a big question mark," Chang said.
The transcript of the pilots' conversation with the control tower was released Sunday, but it offered no clues about the crash's cause. The pilots never mentioned any problems.
Official familiar said little was known about the plane's breakup. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, speculated that it seemed more likely that the plane exploded - either from a bomb or a malfunction - than that it had been hit. If the plane had been shot down, the official said, the weapon would likely have been detected.
Also Sunday, local government ordered China Airlines, Taiwan's biggest carrier, to ground the remaining four Boeing 747-200 planes in its fleet until inspections prove they are safe. The cargo planes are between 13 and 22 years old.
"There are many causes that could lead to high-altitude disintegration. It might have something to do with the plane's structure and mechanical problems," said Chang Chia-chu, vice transportation minister, who announced the decision to ground the planes.
Chang also said the airline, which is trying to shed a reputation as one of the world's most dangerous carriers, must step up inspections of its 46 passenger jets.
Flight CI611 crashed Saturday about 20 nautical miles north of Taiwan's Penghu island chain. The islands are about 30 miles off Taiwan's western coast.
Search teams believe they picked up the black box's beacon signal in the area and were confident it would be recovered soon, official said.
Sunday's rough seas hindered the search for bodies and debris. Swells up to 10 feet tossed around fishing boats and coast guard ships cruising around the crash site. There was a rainbow-colored glimmer on the sea from an oily slick as big as a football field.
Chang Shing-yeu, director of a coast guard helicopter squadron, said pilots spotted the plane's cabin door, a wheel and what appeared to be part of the plane's belly.
From the air, Chang said, "The long oil slick and floating debris looked just like an airport runway on the water."
Soldiers unloaded corpses in gray body bags from a large coast guard vessel at a port in northern Penghu. Nearby, 40 rescue workers in red suits unpacked high-tech search equipment, including remote-controlled underwater cameras. Others laid out lines of thick rope for pulling up wreckage.
Troops placed debris, including seats and a restroom sink, in a roped-off area.
The passengers included 190 from Taiwan, 14 people from Macau and Hong Kong, nine mainland citizens, one Singaporean and one Swiss citizen.
China Airlines planned to retire the Boeing 747-200 jet next month and deliver it to the small regional carrier Orient Thai Airline, which already paid for it, China Airlines said.
China Airlines said the plane was well-maintained and was completely overhauled last year.
The airline's last fatal crash was in 1999, when a jet flipped over and burst into flames during a crash landing in Hong Kong, killing three people.
Apology published to victims & their families
The company published a half-page apology in Taiwan's major Chinese-language papers on Sunday.
The apology, signed by the company's chairman, Y.L. Lee, said: "We want to express our deepest regrets to the victims' families and the public. We will do our best to help the families to recover."
But one victim's relative would not accept the apology.
The man, who would not give his name, went to Penghu to collect his relative's remains and joined other relatives who were sobbing and praying along the island's coast.
Sitting on a park bench, the man looked at the water and yelled, "I'll never fly China Airlines again!"
Taiwan Air Crash
Accident:A China Airlines passenger jetliner with 206 passengers and 19 crew en route from Taipei to Hong Kong crashed into the Taiwan Straits off the island county of Penghu Saturday afternoon.
Rescue work: Taiwanese transportation authorities said that search vessels had found more than 100 bodies in the sea around 25 nautical miles north of Penghu where aChina Airlines jetliner crashed Saturday.
Condolences & external assistance: Soon after the crash, the mainland's Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS) sent a letter of condolences Saturday to the Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) in Taiwan. China's Communications Ministry Sunday afternoon sent two powerful tugboats to help the rescue work in the vicinity of the crash site.