More than three months after the plane carrying industrial goods crashed into waters off Jeju Island, the bodies of the two missing Asiana cargo plane pilots were found Sunday.
The Jeju Maritime Police Agency said a private salvage team, hired by the airline, discovered the bodies of the two missing pilots — Choi Sang-ki, 52, and Lee Jung-woong, 43.
The bodies were found in a part of fuselage believed to be the cockpit, which was lifted from the sea bottom in waters 104 kilometers west of Jeju at 11 a.m. Sunday.
At the time of the discovery, the two were wearing Asiana Airlines pilot uniforms and their bodies were severely decomposed. The bodies were transferred to Jeju University Hospital.
“The bereaved family members flew to the island upon hearing the news. Their identity will be verified through DNA testing. We will then arrange a funeral for them,” a company official said.
Asiana and aviation authorities made an all-out effort over the past few months to locate the bodies of missing pilots and the cargo plane’s black box. The salvage operation was mainly focused on retrieving the device, which holds the key to understanding how and why the Boeing 747 plunged into the sea.
On July 28, the Asiana cargo plane, departing from Incheon International Airport at 3:05 a.m. for Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport, disappeared from the radar at 4:12 a.m. while trying to return to Jeju nine minutes after reporting a fire.
Authorities suspected that flammable material in the cargo caught fire, saying the captain spoke of a “cargo fire emergency” in the last communication with the Shanghai control center.
The plane was carrying 400 kilograms of items including lithium batteries, paint and liquefied amino acid, along with other goods like semiconductors.
A Japanese firm specializing in salvaging ship wreckages, which was hired by Asiana, led the recovery operation. As the firm was unable to retrieve the black box, the government stepped in and deployed a Navy undersea exploration vessel called the “Person Transportation Capsule.”
Even though fishing trawlers mobilized to salvage the device, it was to no avail.
Citing some insurance firms, media outlets raised speculations that the crash may have been intentional as one of the two missing pilots purchased a number of life and property insurance policies totaling more than 3 billion won ($2.8 million), just a month before the accident.
Asiana and the bereaved family flatly denied such accusations. They said it made no sense for the pilot who earned 200 million won a year to engage in an insurance scam by taking his life and destroying the airplane full of highly valuable cargo.
Captain Choi Sang-ki had purchased seven life and non-life insurance policies between June 28 and July 18. Ten days later the plane went down. News reports that he was heavily indebted also stoked the possibility of an insurance scam.
If Choi’s death is declared accidental, his insurance beneficiaries will collect 3 billion won, according to insurers.