Rough seas are hampering the search for China Airlines flight CI611 which went down in the Taiwan Straight Saturday. All 225 people on board the Boeing 747 are presumed dead.

An airbase at a nearby port has been transformed into a huge morgue as teams scoured the water looking for bodies. Seven bodies have been recovered and about 100 others were spotted floating, officials said.

Some of the grieving family members were flown to the port Saturday night.

Earlier shocked relatives gathered at the Taipei and Hong Kong airports, hugging each other and weeping. There were 19 crew and 206 passengers, including three babies, a government official said.

The plane was travelling from Taipei to Hong Kong when it went down 20 minutes after takeoff. The aircraft crashed into the sea near Penghu, a group of islands off Taiwan's western coast also known as the Pescadores.

The cause of the crash is unknown but the company has revealed that the plane was scheduled to be retired next month. Early reports speculated that it might have exploded in midair, but an airline spokesman said there is no hard evidence to suggest an explosion.

The airline came under heavy criticism as local newspapers published scathing headlines reminding readers of the company's dismal safety record. The company has issued an apology to the families.

The weather was clear when the plane took off and Taiwan's Aviation Safety Council said no distress signals came from the pilots before the plane vanished from the radar screens at the control tower.

Air traffic controllers said the plane was flying at 35,000 feet when it disappeared from their screens.

Farmers near the plane's flight path in western Taiwan have found shredded airline magazines and other papers with China Airlines labels on them.

The passengers list showed most of the people on board were Taiwanese, but also included a Singaporean, five people from Hong Kong, nine Chinese people and one Swiss citizen.

Searchers are finding debris from the plane, said transportation ministry spokesman Chang Chia-chu. Along with items such as a cabin door and life jackets, he said a large oil slick was found about 35 kilometres northwest of Penghu, or about 300 kilometres southwest of Taipei.

The Boeing 747-200, built in 1979, was the last of its kind in the Taiwanese airline's fleet, a company spokesman said.

China Airlines, Taiwan's largest passenger carrier, was in the 1990s considered one of the world's most dangerous airlines.

Under new management since 2000, the airline has been putting a greater emphasis on safety.

The last fatal crash for the airline was in 1999 when a plane flipped over and burst into flames during a crash landing in Hong Kong. Three people were killed in that crash., the third fatal accident in six years for the carrier.