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Downpour halts China’s search for jet crash victims, black boxes

Randy Mancini 14 Mar 23
China Eastern Airlines Boeing 737-800 plane flying from Kunming to Guangzhou crashes in Wuzhou
A woman surnamed Liang, 60, takes part in a Buddhist ceremony in honor of the victims in a field close to the entrance of Simen village, near the site where a China Eastern Airlines Boeing 737-800 plane flying from Kunming to Guangzhou crashed, in Wuzhou, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, China March 22, 2022. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

March 23, 2022

By Martin Quin Pollard

WUZHOU, China (Reuters) -Heavy rain in southern China on Wednesday halted the search for victims and flight information black boxes that could tell why a China Eastern Airlines passenger plane plunged into a mountainside two days earlier with 132 people on board.

Rain water was filling the depression in the soft soil caused by the impact of the crash, state television reported, and the local weather bureau said there were risks of landslides, torrents and high winds as conditions deteriorated in the mountains of Guangxi region.

The wet weather was forecast to last for the rest of the week.

Flight MU5735 was en route from the southwestern city of Kunming to Guangzhou on the coast, when the Boeing 737-800 jet suddenly plunged from cruising altitude at about the time when it would normally start to descend ahead of its landing.

The cause of the crash is yet to be determined, with aviation authorities warning that their investigation would be very difficult because of the severe damage to the aircraft.

Desperate and grief stricken relatives of people who had been on board visited the crash site on Wednesday. Among them was a retiree surnamed Zhang from Shenzhen whose eyes filled with tears as he told Reuters that his nephew was on the doomed flight.

“I hope the country can thoroughly investigate this matter and find out whether it was the manufacturer’s fault or it was a maintenance problem,” Zhang said.

SAFETY CONCERNS

China had made great strides in improving air safety standards over the past two decades, and Monday’s disaster was the first major crash in a dozen years.

Having rushed to Guangxi on Monday to oversee the emergency operations, Vice Premier Liu He held a meeting on Tuesday during which officials were urged to go “all out in their search as long as there is a glimmer of hope”.

It would be miraculous if anyone was found alive as the plane disintegrated on impact following its plunge from high altitude.

The disaster prompted the aviation regulator to launch a two-week inspection of the sector that will involve checks at all regional air traffic control bureaus, airline companies and flight training institutes to ensure “absolute” safety.

Since the crash, China Eastern and two subsidiaries have grounded their fleet of more than 200 Boeing 737-800 jets.

The last commercial jetliner to crash in mainland China was in 2010, when an Embraer E-190 regional jet flown by Henan Airlines went down.

At the first news conference held by the government late on Tuesday night in Guangxi, an aviation official said the 737-800 jet that crashed had met airworthiness standards before take-off and crew members had been in good health.

The plane had three pilots on board on its final flight, Zhu Tao, an official from the aviation authority, said at the press conference, which is one more than normally required on a 737.

The aircraft did not respond to repeated calls from air controllers during its rapid descent, Zhu said.

FlightRadar24 data showed the aircraft plunged at a rate of 31,000 feet per minute – the height of a 50-storey building every second.

The disaster comes as Boeing seeks to rebound from several crises, notably the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on air travel and safety concerns over its 737 MAX model following two deadly crashes.

China Eastern also faces deepening losses and closer regulatory scrutiny following the crash.

(Reporting by Stella Qiu and Ryan Woo in Beijing and Jamie Freed in Sydney; Editing by Gerry Doyle & Simon Cameron-Moore)