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PHUKET, Thailand - A budget airliner filled with foreign tourists crashed on the Thai resort island of Phuket on Sunday, killing 88 people as it broke up and burst into flames while trying to land in heavy rain, officials said.

The remaining 42 people on board the flight from Bangkok survived and were being treated in nearby hospitals for a variety of injuries, including burns, Phuket deputy governor Vorapot Rajsima told a news conference.

"Five are in critical condition. Some have burns to 60 percent of their body," Bangkok Phuket hospital coordinator Piyannooch Anantakdee told Reuters.

Survivors spoke of atrocious conditions as the plane came in to land, with torrential rain and turbulence. One man said he thought the McDonnell Douglas MD-82, operated by Bangkok-based low-cost operator One-Two-Go, was coming in too fast.

"The airplane was landing in heavy rain. It landed too fast. I have never seen anything like this. It descended very fast," Nong Khaonual, a Thai who survived the crash with his wife, told Nation Television in hospital.

"Just before we touched the runway we felt the plane try to lift up, and it skidded off the runway," he said. "My wife was half conscious and I dragged her out of the emergency exit. There was a man behind us and he was on fire."

Airports of Thailand said there were seven crew and 78 foreigners on board, most of them European holidaymakers. More than 13 million tourists are forecast to visit Thailand this year Fourteen Thais, eight Britons, five Iranians and four Germans were among the survivors, hospital workers said.

"The plane looks as though it veered off the runway into the side of a hill," said Leslie Quahe, a Singaporean pastor who arrived at the scene about an hour after the crash.

"I was coming down the hill and saw smoke coming from the plane. It had broken into several parts," Quahe told Reuters.

Officials said the plane had broken in two when it touched down on the isle, still dubbed the "Pearl of the Andaman" despite the devastation wrought by the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

The tail section of the plane lay on the runway verge. Its nose was buried in trees lining it.

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Distraught relatives gathered at the airport, on the northwest coast of Thailand's largest island, desperate for news of loved ones. Foreign tour representatives, waiting to meet tourists at the terminal, were also poring over passenger lists.

"I'm deeply sorry about this tragic event," Udom Tantiprasongchai, chairman of One-Two-Go parent company Orient Thai Airlines, told reporters in Bangkok.

He promised a full investigation and said the pilot, whom he did not identify further, was an experienced foreigner. It is not known whether either pilot was among survivors.

"Tomorrow the police will set up an investigating committee to find out what actually caused the accident. What we need to do right now is take care of the injured," Udom said.

Whatever the outcome, the crash is bound to sharpen fears about the safety of the dozens of low-cost operators that have sprung up across Southeast Asia in the past decade.

Despite a number of crashes and scares, most recently in Indonesia, analysts say there is no hard evidence to suggest budget carriers are more accident-prone than full-service operators.

Much of the investigation is bound to focus on the weather conditions as the plane was coming in.

"You could tell there was a problem. The plane was flying around trying to land. It was making some noises and it was bad rain," an Irish survivor called John told Thailand's ITV channel.

"The plane was on fire, but I managed to get through," said John, who was travelling with a friend who also survived.

Officials said the airport, which serves international and domestic flights, was expected to re-open on Monday.
 
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