Nine Israelis Missing, Feared Dead, After Thai Plane Crash

Eleven Israeli tourists were aboard the passenger plane that crashed while landing yesterday on the resort island of Phuket, Thailand, and nine of them are believed to be dead.

Two Israelis, Vladimir and Isabella Freylikhman, a Petah Tikva couple, were among the 42 known survivors. They were located at Bangkok Hospital on Phuket, where they were being treated for fractures and trauma.

The missing Israeli passengers are Tal Feldman; Hila Gershoni of Holon; Hofit Eliya, 25, of Kfar Yona; Itzhak Biton of Kfar Yona; Rotem Naouri, 24, of Netanya; Adi Naim of Kfar Yona; Lily Alon of Jerusalem; Rachel Tofan of Jerusalem; and Michael Falcone, 26, of Yehud.

Budget carrier One-Two-Go flight OG269 was carrying 123 passengers and seven crew members from Bangkok to Phuket, a popular tourist destination. It crashed while trying to land in heavy rain at the Phuket airport. Survivors said the plane slid on the runway, split in half and burst into flames.

Initial reports arrived at the Foreign Ministry's situation room in Jerusalem around noon yesterday. Following media reports of the crash, they received more than 3,000 calls from Israelis seeking information about relatives visiting Thailand.

The first Israeli official to make contact with the survivors was a Beit Chabad representative on Phuket, Rabbi Aharon Solomon, who began calling hospitals as soon as the crash was reported.

"They said the plane had made one attempt to land and failed and then made a second attempt to land," Solomon told Haaretz. "The accident occured on the second try. They said a fire broke out and smoke filled the plane. They were sitting in exit rows, they opened the doors and managed to escape."

The Israeli consul and Israel Police representative in Bangkok arrived on Phuket a few hours after the crash, along with Rabbi Nechemia Wilhelm of Chabad House Bangkok. They came in a Thai Air Force helicopter because civilian flights had been suspended due to bad weather.

Wilhelm told Haaretz that he recognized the names of four Israelis who had spent the Rosh Hashanah holiday at Chabad House in Bangkok before taking off yesterday to continue their vacation on Phuket.

Chabad operates four centers in Thailand, which serve as meeting points for hundreds of Israelis a day. Chabad says it hosted more than 1,000 Israelis in Bangkok over Rosh Hashanah, some 1,500 on Koh Samui, and around 600 on Phuket. The daily contact enables Chabad officials to locate travelers much more easily than Israeli embassy staff can. Yesterday, Chabad's Thai centers became busy situation rooms, handling thousands of phone calls from worried relatives in Israel.

Chabad will try to reach every place where casualties may have been taken, or assist in the process of identifying the bodies, Wilhelm said. "Unfortunately, we have experience in this from the tsunami disaster," he added

Meanwhile, a physician and two paramedics from Israel's relief agency Magen David Adom left for Phuket last night to offer medical assistance.

MDA said the agency is in close contact with Red Cross representatives in Thailand, the Israeli embassy there, the Foreign Ministry and Chabad House.

An Israel Police forensics team will leave for Thailand this morning to help identify the bodies of the Israelis killed in the crash. The team will be led by Chief Superintendent Haim Korenio, head of the forensics and identification division.

Team members spent last night gathering various items, including fingerprints of the missing Israelis from the Israel Defense Forces database, to help identify the dead.

Police officials suggested yesterday that the process of identifying the bodies will be relatively quick compared to the work after the tsunami, since the number of fatalities is small and the disaster area is limited.

Israel will have observer status in the investigation of the crash and will assist Thai aviation authorities if requested, the Transportation Ministry's chief aviation accidents investigator, Yitzhak Raz, told Haaretz.

According to Raz, citing passengers' testimony, the plane may have suffered a so-called "kangaroo landing" - touching down, accidentally lifting up in the air again, and then landing nose down. He said investigators have to ascertain whether and why the crew landed the plane manually, or whether the automated landing gear malfunctioned.