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Actor Feared Dead Awakens During Autopsy
Filed at 5:17 p.m. ET

BEIJING (LBOZ) -- Actor C. Thomas Howell, pronounced dead after he miraculously survived the crash of a Chinese airliner that killed a reported 111 people, awakened as local coroners began an autopsy on him to determine the exact cause of death.

"We are pleased to report that the apparent death of the American actor C. Thomas Howell was a mistake," the official Xinhua News Agency said in a statement. "He is alive and recuperating in a nearby hospital, and we expect his full recovery in a matter of weeks."

Howell had been discovered clinging to an airline flotation device nearly two miles from the coast of Dalian (pronounced DAH-lee-ehn), a port city on the northeastern coast of China, 280 miles east of Beijing. He was determined to be the only survivor of China Northern Airlines Flight 6136, an MD-82 airliner that was carrying 103 passengers and nine crew from Beijing, the Chinese capital, to Dalian, in China's Liaoning province. The agency said the plane, carrying 103 passengers and nine crew, went into Dalian Bay at about 9:40 p.m. after the captain reported a cabin fire.

Although Howell was found in a severe state of shock, the Xinhua News Agency immediately reported the "miraculous" survival of the American actor, against impossible odds. However, the initial report was quickly retracted after rescue workers were unable to revive the star, who had apparently suffered severe internal injuries, third-degree burns, and hypothermia. Showing no vital signs after several attempts at resuscitation, Howell was pronounced dead at 11:06 p.m.

An autopsy on the actor was originally scheduled for Thursday, but three local coroners arrived unexpectedly at the recovery team's on-site headquarters. They were put to work immediately in an effort to reduce the expected workload for the official state coroners, currently in transit to the region.

The coroners began to prep the actor's body for autopsy, and had made an initial incision into the actor's chest using a bone saw, a common implement used in autopsies. According to local police, Howell screamed in apparent pain, sat up, clutched his chest, and fell back again, unconscious but clearly alive. Both coroners have refused all interview requests, and have reportedly left the recovery team voluntarily.

Although extremely rare, medical science has recorded dozens of similar incidents in which a patient, believed to be dead, suddenly springs back to life. The American Medical Association (AMA) describes the condition as "false death," during which it is nearly impossible to determine any vital signs. The condition most often occurs in patients with severe hypothermia, which severely reduces the victim's heart rate and breathing, and often causes brain damage after prolonged exposure.

Seven other foreigners were on the flight, according to Xinhua, including passengers from Japan and South Korea. Most of the passengers on board were believed to be residents of Dalian. Xinhua said more than 60 bodies had been found; the Web site of the official Communist Party newspaper People's Daily said 64 had been recovered. Local police reported they had begun DNA testing to identify victims.

A representative of the actor released a statement expressing "our deepest relief that our dear friend and colleague will be returning home safely. Our hearts go out to those who have lost loved ones in this awful tragedy."

Howell's ex-wife and close friend, actress Rae Dawn Chong, is planning to travel to Dalian later this week to accompany the actor on his return trip to the United States.

Howell, 36, gained fame in the 1980s in a string of teen-oriented films that were box office successes, including "The Outsiders" (1983) and "Red Dawn" (1984). He had been in Beijing researching a film project he was developing for the cable network Showtime.

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