Drones and dogs join search in China for clues to mysterious plane crash
WUZHOU, China — Mud-stained wallets. Bank cards. Official identity cards. Poignant reminders of 132 lives presumed lost were lined up as searchers scoured a remote Chinese mountain on Tuesday in search of the wreckage of a China Eastern flight that a day earlier inexplicably fell from the sky and burst into a huge ball of fire.
No survivors were found among the 123 passengers and nine crew members. Video clips released by Chinese state media show small pieces of the Boeing 737-800 jet scattered across a large wooded area, some in green fields, others in burnt patches with raw earth exposed after fires in the trees. Each piece of debris has a number next to it, with larger ones marked with police tape.
Search teams planned to work through the night using their hands, pickaxes, sniffer dogs and other equipment to search for survivors, state broadcaster CCTV reported.
The steep, rugged terrain and huge size of the debris field made it difficult to find the black box, which contains flight data and the cockpit voice recorder, CCTV and the official Xinhua news agency said.
Drones were used to search for the fragments of wreckage scattered on both sides of the mountain the plane crashed into, state media reported.
As family members gathered at destination and departure airports, which knocked the plane out of the sky shortly before it began its descent to southern China’s metropolis Guangzhou. , remained a mystery.
At an evening press conference, grim-faced Zhu Tao, director of the Aviation Safety Bureau of the Civil Aviation Authority of China, said efforts were focused on finding the black box. and that it was too early to speculate on a possible cause of the crash.
“So far, the rescue has not yet found any survivors,” Zhu said. “The Public Security Department has taken control of the site.”
Zhu said an air traffic controller tried to contact the pilots several times after seeing the plane’s altitude drop sharply, but got no response.
The inability to reach pilots at such a crucial time was not necessarily a problem in and of itself, said William Waldock, professor of safety science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona.
“If faced with an emergency, pilots learn to ‘fly, navigate, then communicate.’ Which means, fly the plane first,” Waldock said. “If it was a major mechanical issue, they might have had their hands full trying to get the plane under control.”
The accident left a deep pit in the side of the mountain the size of a football field, Xinhua said, citing rescuers. Chen Weihao, who saw the plane fall while working on a farm, told the news agency it hit a hole in the mountain where no one lived.
“The plane looked like it was in one piece when it nosedived. Within seconds it crashed,” Chen said.
China Eastern Flight 5735 crashed outside the city of Wuzhou in the Guangxi region while flying from Kunming, the capital of southwestern Yunnan province, to Guangzhou, a nearby industrial hub from Hong Kong on the southeast coast of China. It started a fire large enough to be seen on NASA satellite images before firefighters could extinguish it.
No foreigners were on board the lost flight, the Foreign Office said, citing a preliminary review.
Dinglong Culture, a Guangzhou company specializing in mining and television and film production, said in a statement to the Shenzhen Stock Exchange that its chief financial officer, Fang Fang, was a passenger. Zhongxinghua, an accounting firm used by Dinglong, said two of its employees were also on the flight.
The crash site is surrounded by mountains on three sides and accessible only by foot and motorbike on a steep dirt road in the semi-tropical region of Guangxi, famous for some of China’s most spectacular scenery.
Rain fell on Tuesday afternoon as excavators dug a path for easier access, CCTV said. The steepness of the slope made it difficult to position heavy equipment.
A base of operations has been set up near the crash site with rescue vehicles, ambulances and an emergency power supply truck parked in the narrow space. Soldiers and rescuers combed through the charred crash site and surrounding dense vegetation.
Police restricted access, checking every vehicle entering Molang, a village near the crash site. Five people with swollen eyes came out of the village, got into a car and drove off. Passers-by said they were relatives of the passengers.
Family members gathered at Kunming and Guangzhou airports. People draped in pink blankets and slumped in massage chairs could be seen in a traveler rest area in the basement of the Kunming one. Workers rolled up mattresses and brought in bagged meals. A security guard blocked an Associated Press reporter from entering, saying “interviews are not accepted.”
In Guangzhou, relatives were escorted to a reception center staffed with staff wearing full protective gear to guard against the coronavirus.
At least five hotels with more than 700 rooms have been commandeered in Wuzhou’s Teng County for family members, Chinese media reported.
Workers in hazmat suits set up a registration desk and administered COVID-19 tests at the entrance of a hotel, outside Molang. A sign read: “The hotel is requisitioned for emergency use in the event of a plane crash on March 21.” At another hotel, a group of women, some wearing vests with Red Cross markings, checked in at a hotel desk set up outside.
The country’s first fatal plane crash in more than a decade has dominated Chinese media and social media. World leaders including Britain’s Boris Johnson, India’s Narendra Modi and Canada’s Justin Trudeau posted their condolences on Twitter.
Boeing Chief Executive Dave Calhoun said the company was deeply saddened by the news and offered the full support of its technical experts to help with the investigation.
“Our hearts at all at Boeing are with the passengers and crew members…and their families and loved ones,” he wrote in a message to Boeing employees.
The plane was about an hour into its flight, at an altitude of 29,000 feet (8,840 meters), when it entered a steep and rapid dive around 2:20 p.m., according to data from FlightRadar24.com. The aircraft dived to 7,400 feet before briefly regaining approximately 1,200 feet of altitude, then dived again. The plane stopped transmitting data 96 seconds after it began to dive.
The aircraft was delivered to the airline in June 2015 and had been flying for over six years.
Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport, where the flight was heading, is one of China’s major aviation hubs. It is the home port of China Southern Airlines. As the pandemic has upended air travel, it has overtaken Beijing and Atlanta to claim the title of the world’s busiest airport in 2020 – the most recent year for which annual data is available – with more than 43 million of passengers.
Guangzhou is the capital of Guangdong province, home to export-oriented factories that manufacture smartphones, toys, furniture and other goods. Its Auto City neighborhood has joint ventures operated by Toyota, Nissan and others. Kunming, the departure city located 1,100 kilometers (680 miles) to the west, is the capital of Yunnan province, an agricultural, mining and tourist center that borders Southeast Asia.
China Eastern, headquartered in Shanghai, grounded all of its 737-800s, China’s transport ministry said. Aviation experts said it is unusual to ground an entire fleet of planes unless there is evidence of a problem with the model.
The airline is one of China’s three largest carriers with more than 600 aircraft, including 109 Boeing 737-800s. The grounding could further disrupt domestic air travel already curtailed due to China’s largest COVID-19 outbreak since the initial peak in early 2020.
The Boeing 737-800 has been flying since 1998 and has an excellent safety record, said Hassan Shahidi, president of the Flight Safety Foundation. It is a pre-model to the 737 Max, which was grounded worldwide for nearly two years after fatal crashes in 2018 and 2019.
Before Monday, the last fatal crash of a Chinese airliner occurred in August 2010, when an Embraer ERJ 190-100 operated by Henan Airlines hit the ground short of the runway in the city of Yichun, in the northeast, and caught fire. It carried 96 people and 44 of them died. Investigators blamed pilot error.