China Eastern Airlines crash: families await grim news as rescuers sift through wreckage

State media report no survivors after a Boeing 737-800 flight crashed into mountainous terrain with 132 on board

About an hour into its journey from Kunming to Gaungzhou, flight MU5735 fell out of the air. After cruising at an altitude of 29,100ft, it suddenly dropped to about 7,000ft where it briefly ascended before diving again and crashing into remote bamboo forest in the mountains near Wuzhou. The fall appears to have taken around two minutes, according to flight tracking data.

“The plane did not smoke during the fall,” a witness told the Beijing Youth Daily. “The fire started after it fell into the mountain, followed by a lot of smoke.”

Villagers reported the sound of explosions and a raging fire. Some locals raced to the scene ahead of hundreds of fire and rescue personnel – and reportedly local militia groups – travelling the final distance on foot via a dirt trail.

There has been no official announcement on the death toll, but state media has reported there were no signs of survivors.

Footage of the crash site showed a deep scar in the earth and indiscernible wreckage scattered across the area. A large piece of debris showed a partial sign of the China Eastern Airlines brand.

The flight was carrying 132 people, including nine crew members. ID cards and wallets have reportedly been found at the scene but the plane’s black box has yet to be located and the cause of the crash is not yet known. However some details about those onboard have begun to come through as families gathered at the plane’s destination airport in Guangdong, and the airline’s office in Yunnan. According to local reports, a group of six were heading to Guangzhou for a funeral. A woman who gave a pseudonym Chen, told Jimu News the six included her sister and best friend.

Another man, surnamed Yan, told Reuters a 29-year-old colleague was on the plane, and he was left to notify their mother. “When she picked up the phone, she choked up,” said Yan, adding that he had a “heavy heart” when he heard the news.

Rescuers work at the site of a plane crash Tengxian County in China.
The first rescuers on the scene had to travel the final distance to the plane’s wreckage on foot. Photograph: VCG/Getty Images

Chinese media outlet The Paper reported another man, referred to as Liu Li, was on his way to Guangzhou from Kunming for a reunion with his family after they bought him a ticket. Another report described a young woman on her way to meet her fiance.

“We couldn’t reach her,” her brother said. “She should have been arriving at Guangzhou after two hours. Her fiance is waiting for her at Guangzhou airport, he couldn’t find her or reach her.”

Initial reports said there were 133 people aboard, a number which was later corrected after it emerged a passenger had cancelled their flight prior to boarding.

Authorities have established a huge presence near the crash site, with multiple first responder groups, trauma specialists, psychologists, government emergency coordinators, and media. Live coverage by state media shows villagers on motorbikes carrying rescue workers and supplies up the mountain trail to the scene.

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The crash is China’s worst air disaster in at least a decade, and follows recent government praise for the industry’s vastly improved safety track record. The plane flying route MU5735 was not a Boeing 737 Max, which was grounded after two fatal crashes in 2018 and 2019, but a Boeing 737-800, one of the world’s most common passenger planes. China Eastern Airlines has grounded all of that model in its fleet, as investigations continue.

“Our thoughts are with the passengers and crew of China Eastern Airlines Flight MU 5735,” Boeing said in a statement. “We are working with our airline customer and are ready to support them.”

The plane crash site in Tengxian County, southern China.
The cause of the plane crash, which caused a blaze on the mountainside, is not yet known. Photograph: Xinhua/REX/Shutterstock

CCTV footage from a nearby mine, shared online and verified by Jimu News and the Wall Street Journal, purports to capture the plane’s horrifyingly steep final descent, plunging at just 35 degrees off vertical.

Aviation experts in the UK said there could be multiple reasons for the crash until further evidence emerged. Tony Cable, an air accident investigator, said possibilities included a “loss of control event” or high altitude stall. Crashes during the cruising period of a flight are rare.

China’s leader, Xi Jinping, called for an all-out response and investigation. Hu Xijin, a former editor of the Global Times, China’s nationalistic tabloid, called for the company to keep people updated, perhaps referring to the public furore and eventual arrests after officials covered up the true extent of the death toll in last year’s Henan flood disaster. “Absolutely do not wait until the formal end of an investigation before notifying the public,” he said.

The airline said there were no foreign nationals among the passengers. Authorities in Taiwan – which China claims as a province against its stated status as an independent nation – are working to determine if any of its citizens were onboard.

Additional reporting by Chi Hui Lin and Xiaoqian Zhu


Contributor

Helen Davidson in Taipei

The GuardianTramp

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