TAIPEI, Taiwan -- Singapore Airlines defended its pilot's decision to take off in heavy wind and rain, saying Wednesday he did not endanger the lives of the 179 people aboard the jumbo jet that burst into flames on the runway, killing 79.
Meanwhile, investigators searched for a mystery object that Flight SQ006 may have hit before catching fire and breaking into three pieces late Tuesday. Of the 47 Americans on board, at least 23 were killed.
As emergency workers pulled bodies from the charred, blue-and-tan wreckage, early speculation pointed to gusting winds as a possible factor in the Los Angeles-bound Boeing 747-400's accident. But the airline and Taiwanese aviation officials said the veteran pilot, Capt. C.K. Foong, wasn't reckless for deciding to fly.
The airline said it believes the plane struck an unknown object on the runway.
At the time of the disaster, Chiang Kai-shek International Airport was being lashed by nighttime rains from an offshore typhoon. But wind speeds and visibility levels did not exceed the maximum limits for closing the airport, Taiwanese civil aviation official Billy K.C. Chang said.
Airline spokesman Rick Clements told reporters in Singapore that other planes were taking off at the time. "He wouldn't be allowed to take off if the weather conditions were very bad," he said of the pilot.
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.
The accident was the first major one for Singapore Airlines -- consistently voted the most favored airline of business travelers -- in 28 years of operation.
Chou Kuang-tsan of the Aviation Safety Council, which investigates Taiwanese air accidents, said the plane apparently swerved off its runway and onto a spare runway that was under repair. Chou said it was not clear why the plane veered off the runway.
He said he will begin analyzing the plane's "black boxes," or flight data and voice cockpit recorders, on Thursday.
"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.
In addition to the 79 people who died in the accident, 39 were hospitalized and 61 suffered minor injuries or escaped unhurt, Chang said.
"It felt like we hit something twice and I was pushed out of my seat," said Deborah Brosnan, 43, of Ireland. "I was wearing a seat belt and then I saw flames above me."
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