Rescue workers gathered on Tuesday for a desperate search for all survivors of the crash of a passenger plane carrying 132 people which plunged to more than 20,000 feet in just over a minute before crashing on Monday in a remote mountain valley in southern China.
China Eastern Airlines, which operated the Boeing 737-800, and the central government are investigating the cause of the crash, which is likely to be the country’s biggest air disaster in more than a decade.
China’s aviation safety record has been strong over the past two decades, but the crash will add another public safety concern for President Xi Jinping, whose government is grappling with its biggest ever outbreak of cases. of Covid-19 since the start of 2020. For Boeing, the crash could renew regulatory scrutiny that has followed two crashes in recent years involving another plane, the 737 Max.
Flight MU-5735 took off from Kunming, the capital of southwestern Yunnan province, at 1:11 p.m., according to Flightradar24, a tracking platform. About halfway to its destination, Guangzhou, the commercial hub of southeast China, the plane was cruising at 29,100 feet.
Then, around 2:20 p.m., the plane “suddenly started to lose altitude very quickly”, Flightradar24 said in a tweet. It quickly descended 20,000ft – a nearly vertical drop – and appeared to briefly regain altitude around 8,000ft before continuing its dive, according to data from Flightradar24.
A thunderous boom then rippled through a tree-covered valley, where the loudest noises usually come from swarms of insects and villagers’ motorbikes. At first, residents of Teng County in the Guangxi region were puzzled by the blast, they told Chinese media.
Plumes of smoke billowed above the clusters of bamboo and banana trees. Farmers came across shards of wreckage, apparently from the plane’s wings and fuselage, some showing China Eastern lettering. And villagers gathered to put out some of the fires that had broken out in the hills, one said in a telephone interview with The New York Times.
Hundreds of rescuers flooded the site but, according to initial reports, only encountered debris – including parts of an airplane wing and charred bits of fabric – in the remote and heavily forested area.
Pictures and videos showed a frenzy of nighttime activity as rescuers assembled tents and command posts, set up power supplies and lights and lined up dozens of ambulances in the hope of finding someone alive . Dozens of local volunteers on motorbikes carried water, food and tents.
The rain, which was forecast for the area, held at least for much of the night. But showers were expected on Tuesday, and could hamper searches on the hillsides covered with bushes, ferns and bamboo.
The plane was carrying 123 passengers and nine crew members, the Civil Aviation Administration of China said. Family members of the crew had started gathering at the airline’s office in Kunming, according to state media, and relatives of the passengers were at Guangzhou airport, the plane’s destination.
“The cause of the plane crash is still under investigation, and the company will actively cooperate with relevant investigations,” China Eastern said in a statement late Monday. “The company expresses its sincere condolences to the passengers and crew members who died in the plane crash.”
The Shanghai-based airline is China’s second largest by passenger numbers. Like China Southern and Air China, which round out the top three carriers, China Eastern is government-controlled.
China’s aviation industry had become the largest in the world before the pandemic led to shutdowns. But the industry’s road has been bumpy: China suffered a series of deadly air crashes in the early 1990s before tightening its surveillance. Over the past two decades, its airlines have produced one of the best aviation safety records in the world.
“Historically, it was questionable, but in the new era, it has been very good from a security point of view,” said David Yu, a finance professor specializing in aviation at the Shanghai campus of the University of China. New York, about the Chinese airline industry.
The country’s last major accident dates back to 2010, when an Embraer plane, operated by Henan Airlines, crashed and burned while trying to land on a foggy runway in northeast China. Of the 96 people on board, 44 died.
Following Monday’s crash, Mr. Xi quickly issued a statement calling on rescuers to do all they can to find survivors and calling for an increase in “security checks in the civil aviation sector” to “se ensure that people’s lives are absolutely safe”.
This pledge to protect Chinese citizens has become an important symbol of Mr. Xi’s authority. Mr. Xi, China’s most dominant leader for decades, has often made the ruling Communist Party the country’s guardian in a dangerous and uncertain world.
The Guangxi researchers were joined by a Chinese vice premier, Liu He – a powerful official who usually directs economic policy – who was tasked with overseeing rescue efforts and investigating the causes of the disaster.
Recent missteps in the evacuation of Chinese citizens from war-torn Ukraine and last year’s deadly floods in Henan province, which killed more than 300 people, have undermined that image. Still, Mr. Xi’s promise of responsibility for the accident will raise expectations for a prompt and thorough investigation into Monday’s disaster.
Until the pandemic, Chinese airlines hired a significant share of their pilots from overseas as air travel grew faster than China’s ability to train its own pilots. China has earned a reputation for offering some of the highest salaries in the world to experienced foreign pilots.
But many of those foreign pilots have returned to their home countries in the past two years as China halted nearly all international air travel during the pandemic, and domestic travel has also declined somewhat. Chinese airlines are now almost entirely dependent on Chinese pilots, Yu said.
China has designed its own alternative to the Boeing 737-800 which crashed on Monday. This model, the C919, is built in Shanghai by a state-owned company. China Eastern is expected to be the first airline to operate the C919 in the coming months, through one of its subsidiaries.
China Eastern’s last fatal accident was in 2004, when a Bombardier CRJ-200 flying from the city of Baotou in Inner Mongolia to Shanghai plunged into a frozen lake shortly after takeoff, killing 55 people. The disaster was caused by ice on the wings, safety regulators said.
The Boeing plane in Monday’s accident was delivered to China Eastern in 2015, according to Flightradar24. It was a 737-800 NG, a line that accounts for nearly 17% of the roughly 25,000 passenger planes in service worldwide, according to Cirium, an aeronautical data provider.
Shares of China Eastern and those of Boeing fell in Hong Kong and New York, respectively, on Monday, with Boeing shares falling 3.6%.
Boeing’s new single-aisle jet, the 737 Max, has come under intense global scrutiny after one crashed in Indonesia in late 2018 and a second crashed in Ethiopia. The model was grounded worldwide after the second crash, in March 2019. Boeing made a series of modifications to the plane before it was again approved for commercial service in most countries 20 months later. late.
But China waited longer than most countries to allow the 737 Max to fly again. Chinese aviation regulators did not grant it approval until early December, but demanded that Chinese airlines prove they had made all of Boeing’s modifications before they could resume flying them on commercial routes.
On Monday, Boeing offered its condolences to the families of the victims and said it was in contact with China Eastern and a security agency in the United States. He also said he would be help the authorities in China investigating the accident.
Austin Ramzy,Niraj Chokshi,Joy Dong Liu Yi and Nadav Gavrielov contributed report.