By DAKE KANG and NG HAN GUAN – Associated Press
GUANGZHOU, China (AP) — Mud-stained wallets. bank cards. Official IDs. Some of the personal effects of 132 lives believed lost were lined up by rescue workers Tuesday searching a remote mountainside for the wreckage of a China Eastern plane that had inexplicably fallen from the sky a day earlier and turned into a giant fireball.
No survivors were found among the 123 passengers and nine crew members. Video clips released by China’s state media show small parts of the plane scattered across a vast forested area, some in green fields, others in burned-out patches of raw earth exposed after fires in the trees. Next to each piece of debris is a number, the larger ones are marked with caution tape.
As family members gathered at the destination and departure airports, a mystery remained as to what caused the Boeing 737-800 to plummet from the sky just before beginning its descent to the southern Chinese metropolis of Guangzhou. Searching for the black boxes, which contain flight data essential to crash investigations and cockpit voice recorders, would be difficult, official Xinhua news agency said, and would involve drones and manual searches.
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The crash left a deep pit in the mountainside, Xinhua said, citing rescuers. Chen Weihao, who saw the falling plane while working on a farm, told the news agency that it hit a gap in the mountain where no one lived.
“The plane looked like it was in one piece when it crashed. It crashed within seconds,” Chen said.
A base with emergency vehicles, ambulances and an emergency power supply truck parked in a confined space was set up near the crash site. Soldiers and rescue workers combed the charred crash site and the surrounding thick vegetation.
Security has been tightened at the entrance to Molang, a village near the crash site. Police officers could be seen at a checkpoint checking every vehicle entering the village. Five people with swollen eyes walked through the entrance, got into a car and disappeared. Eyewitnesses said they were relatives of the passengers.
The steepness of the slope made positioning of heavy equipment difficult, although few large parts of the aircraft appeared to remain and there seemed little need for their use.
The Boeing 737-800 crashed outside the city of Wuzhou in the Guangxi region while flying from Kunming in the southwestern province of Yunnan to the industrial hub of Guangzhou, not far from Hong Kong on China’s southeast coast. It started a fire large enough to see in NASA satellite imagery and was extinguished by firefighters.
Relatives of the passengers gathered at both airports. People wrapped in pink blankets and slumped in massage chairs were seen at a rest area for travelers in Kunming’s basement. Airport employees brought pre-packaged meals and rolled in mattresses. A security guard barred entry to an AP journalist, saying “interviews will not be accepted.”
In Guangzhou, family members were escorted to a reception center staffed by staff wearing full protective gear to protect against the spread of the coronavirus.
At least five hotels with more than 700 rooms have been confiscated from family members in Teng County in Wuzhou, Chinese media reported.
The country’s first deadly plane crash in more than a decade dominated China’s news and social media. World leaders, including Britain’s Boris Johnson, India’s Narendra Modi and Canada’s Justin Trudeau, expressed their condolences on Twitter.
Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun said in a message that the company was deeply saddened by the news and had offered the full support of its technical experts to help with the investigation.
“The thoughts of all of us at Boeing are with the passengers and crew members … as well as their families and loved ones,” he wrote in a message to Boeing employees.
According to data from FlightRadar24.com, China Eastern Flight 5735 was flying at an altitude of 8,840 meters (29,000 feet) when it entered a steep, fast dive at around 2:20 p.m. The plane crashed at 7,400 feet before briefly returning to about 1,200 feet and then descending again. The aircraft stopped transmitting data 96 seconds into the dive.
China Eastern has retired all of its 737-800s, China’s Transportation Ministry said. Aviation experts said it was unusual for an entire fleet of planes to be grounded unless there was evidence of a problem with the model.
The airline has more than 600 aircraft, 109 of which are Boeing 737-800. The grounding could potentially further disrupt already restricted domestic air travel as China grapples with its biggest coronavirus outbreak since it first peaked in early 2020.
Boeing 737-800s have been flying since 1998 and have an excellent safety record, said Hassan Shahidi, president of the Aviation Safety Network, an arm of the Flight Safety Foundation.
It’s an earlier model than the 737 Max, which was grounded around the world for almost two years after fatal crashes in 2018 and 2019.
The crash site is remote, accessible only by foot and motorbike, in Guangxi, a subtropical region of mountains and rivers famous for some of China’s most spectacular scenery.
The region lies east of the agricultural, mining and tourism center of Yunnan Province, whose capital is Kunming, a city of 8.5 million that is a hub for trade with Southeast Asia and the northern terminus of a high-speed rail link to neighboring Laos, the opened in December.
Guangzhou in the west is China’s traditional foreign trade capital and lies at the heart of the country’s southeastern export-oriented manufacturing industries that supply smartphones, toys, furniture and other goods to the world, and is a center for a growing Chinese auto industry.
Also known as Canton, the city of 18.5 million is home to the Canton Trade Fair, the world’s largest annual trade show. The Auto City district on the northern outskirts of Guangzhou is home to one of China’s largest state-owned automakers, GAC Group, as well as joint venture factories run by Toyota and Nissan and smaller brands.
Before Monday, the last fatal Chinese airliner crash occurred in August 2010, when an Embraer ERJ 190-100 operated by Henan Airlines hit the ground just short of the runway in the northeastern city of Yichun and caught fire. It carried 96 people and 44 of them died. Investigators blamed pilot error.
The CAAC and China Eastern both dispatched officials to the crash site. The US Federal Aviation Administration, which certified the 737-800 in the 1990s, said it was willing to help if requested.
Headquartered in Shanghai, China Eastern is one of the country’s top three airlines, serving 248 domestic and international destinations.
The aircraft was delivered to the airliner by Boeing in June 2015 and has been flying for more than six years.
The twin-engine single-aisle Boeing 737 in various configurations has been flying for more than 50 years and is one of the world’s most popular aircraft for short and medium-haul flights.
Kang reported from Kunming, China. Contributing to this report were Associated Press researcher Yu Bing and news assistant Caroline Chen in Beijing, researcher Si Chen in Shanghai, video producer Olivia Zhang, writer Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and aviation writer David Koenig in Dallas .
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