While waiting for their arrival, those loved ones were met with horror after China Eastern Airlines Flight 5735 en route from Kunming to Guangzhou crashed on Monday in the densely forested mountains of southern China.
One man told state-run Beijing Youth Daily that he and his long-distance fiancee have been together for five years. “This time we didn’t see each other in person for four months, we really missed each other,” he said. His fiancée originally planned to fly to Guangzhou to see him on March 22, but she missed him too much and changed her flight to MU5735.
Another woman told the news agency that she had been abroad for several years and had not seen her mother in a long time. Her mother was visiting and originally planned to transit through Shanghai, but on the advice of a travel agent she changed her flight to fly through Guangzhou.
According to Beijing Youth Daily, a young girl was among the passengers. A student from Kunming City, she was on her way home to Guangzhou to celebrate her 16th birthday with friends and family. Unbeknownst to her, her friends have planned a surprise party. Before boarding the flight, she wrote to a friend, saying: “When I see you all, I need to give you a big hug.”
Other passengers included young professionals on business trips and newlyweds, according to state media.
The crash of a Boeing 737-800 on Monday was China’s worst air disaster in more than a decade.
The cause of the crash is not yet known – the plane was “flying normally” before it suddenly began to descend and lost contact with ground control just over an hour after the start of the flight, an airline spokesman said at a press conference on Tuesday evening. He added that pre-flight inspections showed nothing to worry about, all crew members are healthy and qualified.
More than 2,000 rescuers have arrived at the scene, looking for so-called “black boxes” – flight data and cockpit voice recorders that may contain key information about how the disaster unfolded. Searches have been suspended since Wednesday morning due to heavy rain.
The airline has contacted the families of all passengers and crew on board, according to state-run tabloid Global Times. Some relatives gathered at the Guangzhou airport where the flight was due to land, waiting in the cordoned off area for any news of their loved ones. Others are heading to Wuzhou, near the crash site, and several hotels in the city are preparing rooms to host families.
An investigation is underway by the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), which also involves the US National Transportation Safety Board and the US Federal Aviation Administration. But it could be months or even more than a year before the families get any answers – the final report on the fatal Henan Airlines crash in 2010 was not released until almost two years later.
Crash investigators warned on Tuesday that their investigation into the cause of the crash would be “very difficult” due to how badly damaged the plane was.
“Because the investigation has just begun, we cannot make a clear judgment about the cause of the accident based on the information we have. The investigation team will spare no effort to gather evidence from all sides and focus on the search,” a CAAC spokesman said.
The disaster has sparked an outpouring of mourning online, and the topic has been trending on Weibo, a Chinese Twitter-like platform, for the past few days. The relevant hashtags have been viewed hundreds of millions of times, and many people are calling for privacy and respect for the families of the victims.
Images and footage of the crash added to the nationwide horror, especially a video taken by a mining company near the crash site, which shows the plane hurtling toward the forest in a near-vertical dive.
CNN is unable to independently confirm the authenticity of the video or that the alleged aircraft is MU5735, but the precipitous drop is consistent with available flight tracking data that showed the China Eastern jet plunged more than 25,000 feet (7,600 meters) in less than two minutes.
Many Weibo users also pointed out that grief over the tragedy is exacerbated by the hardships of life during Covid, when many families are scattered and unable to see each other. As China is currently grappling with the biggest wave of Covid since Wuhan 2020, the crash felt like a blow to the chest.
“They should have been able to return home to reunite and travel with their families after the pandemic,” one person wrote in a Weibo post. “(Guangzhou Airport) still has the people they love the most.”
“Over the past two years, we have missed too many beautiful things due to Covid-19 or for other reasons,” wrote another. “Those passengers on the plane probably all had messages on their phones: ‘See you later’, ‘You’re almost home’, ‘Finally we don’t need a long distance relationship anymore. But their lives were cut short the moment they received these messages.”