Two thousand emergency workers and soldiers scoured a mountain in China’s Guangxi province on Tuesday, picking through plane wreckage and surveying the site by drone in hopes of finding answers to what caused the country’s first air disaster in more than 10 years.
There is no sign of survivors from the crash of China Eastern Airlines Flight 5735, officials said at an evening news conference in Wuzhou, a city near where the plane came down. All that remained of the 132 people on board appears to be a handful of burned and damaged ID documents, wallets and other personal belongings scattered across the crash site and surrounding jungle, along with badly mangled sections of fuselage.
Zhu Tao, an official with the Civil Aviation Administration of China, said the near-total destruction of the plane will make investigating the crash “very difficult.” His team hopes to find the plane’s flight recorders – the so-called black boxes – in order to carry out data analysis “as soon as possible,” Mr. Zhu said, adding there was “no clear cause of the accident so far.”
Two hundred kilometres away, friends and family of those on board spent the day waiting for news in a cordoned-off section of Guangzhou airport, where the doomed flight was headed.
One woman, who gave her surname as Chen, told state media she had six relatives and friends on board the flight. They had been travelling to attend a burial ceremony in Guangzhou. On Monday night, Ms. Chen and her family lit 100 candles leading up to their doorstep to pray for their loved ones’ return.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has ordered “all-out efforts” in response to the crash, the second-worst disaster in Chinese aviation history, and vice-premier Liu He has been dispatched to oversee the rescue operation and investigation.
Those efforts have been hampered by the remoteness of the crash site, which is surrounded by heavy jungle and accessed only by a single dirt road. Rescuers spent much of Monday night establishing command posts and setting up power supplies and lights, as local volunteers brought water and food up the mountain. Drones are being used to survey the area around the crash site, a huge hole dug into the mountain by the force of the impact.
Rain, which began in the early afternoon Tuesday and is expected to last for much of the week, may further complicate the search for the plane’s flight recorders, which rescuers hope may offer some insight into how the disaster unfolded.
MU5735 departed Kunming, capital of Yunnan province, at 1:10 p.m. local time Monday in cloudy but relatively calm weather, with normal visibility. The plane was due to land in Guangzhou, north of Hong Kong, at around 3 p.m.
At around 2:17 p.m., the Boeing 737-800 jet had reached its cruising altitude of 29,000 feet, travelling at a speed of 457 knots (846 kilometres an hour), and was preparing to begin its descent. Rather than reducing altitude slowly, however, the plane suddenly plunged to 3,225 feet, before losing contact at 2:21 p.m.
Officials said Tuesday that air traffic control in Guangzhou attempted to contact the crew immediately after the plane began losing altitude, but did not get any response.
A security camera set up by a mining company overlooking the jungle, and the dashcam of a car driving past, appear to have caught the flight’s final moments. The videos, published by Chinese media, showed the plane flying into the mountain at high speed with its nose down at an extreme angle.
Neil Hansford, an Australian aviation expert and chairman of Strategic Aviation Solutions, said it was unlikely that a technical issue could have caused such a descent.
“Even if you lose control of the engines, planes have some characteristics of a glider; they don’t just come down like a stone,” he told The Globe and Mail. “They don’t just spear the ground.”
He warned that the trajectory and speed of the impact could have damaged the flight recorders, which are made to withstand a crash but are not invulnerable.
“Everyone says ‘when we get the black boxes,’ but they’re data drives at the end of the day,” Mr. Hansford said. “At that sort of impact, going straight down, whether they’re able to be analyzed is highly questionable. It may be holding out too much hope to think we’re going to get all the answers.”
Following Monday’s disaster, China Eastern said it was grounding all Boeing 737-800s in its fleet. China has more of the planes – predecessor to the Boeing 737 Max – than any other country, and state media reported some 850 flights were carried out on the jets Tuesday, even without the China Eastern fleet.
“This aircraft type is one of the most prevalent in the world,” said David Yu, chairman of China Aviation Valuation Advisors and a professor at NYU Shanghai. “Historically it’s the biggest one for low-cost carriers.”
In a statement, Boeing said, “Our technical experts are prepared to assist with the investigation led by the Civil Aviation Administration of China.
“Our thoughts are with the passengers and crew of China Eastern Airlines Flight MU 5735,” the Chicago-based company said. “We are working with our airline customer and are ready to support them.”
Dr. Yu said that in the past decade, Chinese regulators “have been very cautious, very focused on safety, and it shows in the track record.” The country has not had a major disaster for over 11 years, and last month notched 100 million hours of safe flying, a world-beating performance.
According to a database maintained by the Virginia-based Flight Safety Foundation, China’s last major accident involving a passenger jet was in 2010, when 44 of 96 people on board Henan Airlines Flight 8387 were killed after it crashed while landing at Yichun airport in low visibility.
China’s worst aviation disaster was in 1994, when a China Northwest Airlines Tupolev Tu-154 flying from Xian to Guangzhou disintegrated in mid-air soon after takeoff, causing the deaths of all 160 people on board.
China was among the first countries to order the grounding of the 737 Max in 2019 and has yet to reapprove it for use. The grounding happened after twin disasters in Indonesia and Ethiopia that were later found to be caused by a design flaw Boeing had covered up.
Unlike the Max, experts said Monday’s crash was unlikely to expose some systematic issue with the plane model given how widely and for how long it has been used around the world.
With a report from Alexandra Li
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