In China’s worst air crash in more than a decade, a Boeing 737-800 carrying 132 people crashed Monday afternoon in a remote mountainous region in the country’s south as it flew from Kunming to Guangzhou.
Communication with the crew could not be established in the last minutes before the plane crashed, Chinese investigators of the plane crash said at a press conference on Tuesday.
“The flight took off from Kunming at 13:16 and flew normally. Around 14:21, he arrived over the city of Wuzhou, Guangxi Province. The ground station noticed that the plane changed altitude abruptly and then lost contact with the plane before the plane eventually crashed,” said Sun Shiying, spokesman for China Eastern Airlines.
The aircraft passed pre-flight checks and nine crew members are compliant and healthy, Sun added.
The cause of the crash is not yet clear, an official from the Civil Aviation Authority of China (CAAC) said. “The investigation team will spare no effort to collect evidence from all sides and focus on the search,” a CAAC spokesman said.
On Tuesday, state broadcaster CCTV reported that investigators still hadn’t found the plane’s black boxes and were facing difficult terrain and bad weather.
The black boxes are flight data and cockpit voice recorders that can contain key information about how the crash unfolded.
Investigating the cause of the crash will be “very difficult,” investigators warned, due to how badly damaged the plane was.
The plane was at a cruising altitude of 29,000 feet (about 8,900 meters) minutes before the crash, according to FlightRadar24’s flight tracking data. The plane then dived so fast that it submerged to over 25,000 feet (7,600 meters) in less than two minutes.
Surveillance footage from a mining company near the crash site shows the plane hurtling towards the forest, falling almost vertically. CNN can’t independently confirm the authenticity of the video or that it’s China Eastern Flight 5735, but the steep drop is consistent with the flight’s tracking data.
Witnesses reported seeing a fiery explosion, aircraft parts and clothing tangled in trees, and patches of forest on fire.
One item recovered from the wreck, a handwritten note describing the meaning of traditional jade jewelry, was photographed and widely shared online. The jewelry stands for “a fulfilling life, a successful career, marital happiness, inner peace… which reflects people’s expectations of life,” the note said, prompting mournful posts on Chinese social media.
On Monday evening, relatives of the passengers gathered at the Guangzhou airport, waiting for news from their loved ones, as authorities launched an investigation into the plane crash.
Due to the apparent speed of the crash, it’s unlikely that anyone on board survived or that there will be clear remains to be identified, according to David Soucie, a former safety inspector for the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Investigative and search activities
Chinese President Xi Jinping issued a rare statement hours after the crash, ordering the country’s emergency services to organize a search and rescue operation to determine the cause of the crash.
“The fact that the President gave such a sharp and quick response to this tells me that they are taking this very, very seriously,” Susi said.
After several plane crashes in the 1990s and 2000s, China implemented a series of drastic security measures. Monday’s crash was the country’s first deadly plane crash since the 2010 Henan Airlines crash that killed 44 of the 96 people on board.
Hundreds of rescuers were sent to the crash site in East China on Monday and continued their work through the night. The footage shows how police and rescuers make their way along mountain paths in the dark with flashlights. Other teams, including medical staff and firefighters, are working under tents preparing supplies and monitoring drones.
But they face numerous problems. According to state media, the crash site is surrounded by mountains on three sides, there is only one narrow path and there is no electricity. Heavy rescue vehicles were unable to reach the scene on Monday, and the video shows search parties scrambling uphill through the trees.
According to the Guangxi Meteorological Bureau, a cold front is also expected in the near future, which may be accompanied by heavy rain in the coming days.
“It’s not yet clear what caused the plane to start crashing, and we won’t know more until authorities can obtain and analyze the aircraft’s cockpit recorder, black box, and other critical data,” said Susi, a former FAA inspector.
Aviation expert Peter Goelz, a former managing director of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), told CNN that might not be possible.
“The biggest thing they can do right now is try to recover the flight data recorder and voice recorder, but with such an impact, these recorders can be damaged,” Goltz said.
The investigation will be conducted by CAAC. Boeing, the engine manufacturer, CFM and the FAA will also be involved in the investigation.
Investigators who took part in Tuesday’s press conference did not comment on whether NTSB representatives would be involved in the investigation.
This pattern is standard for aircraft accidents involving American-designed aircraft that occur overseas.
Putting together all the information and evidence in a modern jet crash investigation can take months or more. The final report on the 2010 Henan Airlines crash was published almost two years later.
Meanwhile, China Eastern Airlines is contacting all the families of the victims, CCTV reported. Wuzhou authorities sent dozens of buses and taxis to pick up family members.
“The hardest part of being an investigator is working with families,” Susi said. “At this point, the families want to get everything they can from the accident victims. In this case, they will have nothing to gain.”
While the Boeing 737 has faced extremely serious safety issues over the past three years, the plane that crashed on Monday was a different version of the plane than the combat 737 Max, whose crashes shook Boeing to its core.
China Eastern Airlines’ aircraft was a Boeing 737-800, the most popular version of the Boeing aircraft currently in service and the workhorse of many airlines. The plane that crashed on Monday has been in service since 2015.
The airline will suspend all Boeing 737-800 flights, CCTV reports. But other Chinese carriers will continue to operate the same type of aircraft, state media reported.
The 737-800 belongs to a class of Boeing aircraft known as the 737-NG, which stands for Next Generation. These aircraft had safety issues cited by U.S. regulators, although none reached the level of requiring aircraft to be grounded.
Boeing has sold more than 7,000 737-NG airliners worldwide, and until Monday, the type had seen only a dozen fatal accidents in its 25-year history.
Boeing came under international scrutiny after its 737 Max, which replaced the 737-800, suffered two fatal crashes in 2018 and 2019. It was shown that these crashes were caused by a flaw in the design of the new stabilization system that was used in the 737-800. does not have.