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China seeks victims, flight recorders after first plane crash in 12 years

Randy Mancini 6 Mar 22
Relatives of the passengers of the China Eastern Airlines Boeing 737-800 plane that crashed in Wuzhou wait for news
People stand in an area where relatives of the passengers of the China Eastern Airlines Boeing 737-800 plane, which crashed in Wuzhou flying from Kunming to Guangzhou, wait for news, at Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, China March 21, 2022. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

March 22, 2022

By Martin Quin Pollard

WUZHOU, China (Reuters) -Rescuers scoured heavily forested slopes in southern China on Tuesday as they hunted for the victims and flight recorders from a China Eastern Airlines jet that crashed a day earlier in the mountains of Guangxi with 132 aboard.

Parts of the Boeing 737-800 were strewn across mountain slopes charred by fire after China’s first crash of a commercial jetliner since 2010. Burnt remains of identity cards and wallets were also seen, state media said.

Flight MU5735 was travelling to the port city of Guangzhou from Kunming, capital of the southwestern province of Yunnan, when it suddenly plunged from cruising altitude at about the time it would normally start to descend prior to landing.

Chinese media carried brief highway video images from a vehicle’s dashboard camera that appeared to show a jet diving to the ground at an angle of about 35 degrees from the vertical. Reuters could not immediately verify the footage.

Si, 64, a villager near the crash site who declined to give his first name, told Reuters he heard a “bang, bang” at the time of the crash.

“It was like thunder,” he said.

State media, which described the situation as “grim”, have said the possibility of the deaths of all on board could not be ruled out.

The crash site was hemmed in by mountains on three sides, state media said, with just one tiny path providing access. Rain was forecast in the area this week.

Excavators were clearing a path to the site on Tuesday, images on state television showed.

Earlier, video images from the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the ruling Communist Party, showed search and rescue workers and paramilitary forces scaling tree-covered hillocks and placing markers wherever debris was found.

Police set up a checkpoint at Lu village, on the approach to the site, and barred journalists from entering.

Several individuals gathered on Tuesday for a small Buddhist ceremony near the crash site, intended to help the souls of the victims find peace.


U.S.-based aviation analyst Robert Mann of R.W. Mann & Company said investigators would need the flight data recorders to understand what might have caused the abrupt descent suggested by Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) data. ADS-B is a technology that allows aircraft to be tracked.

A investigation team sent by the State Council, or cabinet, will give details of the search and rescue effort and the hunt for the black boxes at a news conference on Tuesday evening, state television said.

The crash comes as planemaker Boeing seeks to rebound from several overlapping crises, such as the coronavirus pandemic and crashes of its 737 MAX model.

Once it is found, the cockpit voice recorder could also yield clues to what went wrong with Monday’s flight.

“Accidents that start at cruise altitude are usually caused by weather, deliberate sabotage, or pilot error,” Dan Elwell, a former head of U.S. regulator the Federal Aviation Administration, told Reuters.

Elwell, who led the FAA during the 737-MAX crisis, said mechanical failures in modern commercial jets were rare at cruise altitude.

On Monday, China Eastern and two subsidiaries grounded its fleet of 737-800 planes. The group has 225 of the aircraft, data from British aviation consultancy IBA shows.

As of Tuesday, other Chinese airlines had yet to cancel any flights that use 737-800 aircraft, according to data from Chinese aviation data provider Flight Master.

Onshore-listed shares of China Eastern slumped more than 6.5% on Tuesday, while those trading in Hong Kong fell nearly 6%.

Among the passengers was the chief financial officer of Dinglong Culture, a Guangzhou-headquartered firm whose businesses range from entertainment to titanium mining.

A provincial daily cited a woman as saying six of her family members and friends were on the flight to Guangzhou, where they had been due to attend a funeral.

Other passenger jets took the same flight path on Tuesday that had been used by the doomed plane a day earlier.

The last crash of a commercial jetliner in China was in 2010, when an Embraer E-190 regional jet flown by Henan Airlines crashed in the northeast, killing 44 of the 96 aboard.

(Additional reporting by Ryan Woo, Stella Qiu and Albee Zhang in Beijing, Jason Xue and Brenda Goh in Shanghai, Jamie Freed in Sydney, Allison Lampert in Montreal and Eric M Johnson in Seattle; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Clarence Fernandez)

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