A day after a Boeing 737 plane crashed in southern China, hundreds of firefighters, police officers and paramilitary troops scoured lush hillsides for survivors. Orthopedic surgeons and burn specialists waited at nearby hospitals. Students lined up for blood donation drives, according to Chinese news reports on Tuesday.
At the crash site, workers found burned identity cards, purses, cellphones and other belongings, news reports said. But the likelihood that any of the 132 people onboard the plane made it out alive appeared increasingly slim.
The China Eastern Airlines plane, Flight MU5735, had plunged from 29,000 feet in the air to earth on Monday in Teng County in the region of Guangxi, scattering burning debris across the remote countryside.
A staff member who answered the phone on Tuesday at the Wuzhou People’s Hospital near the crash site said the hospital had no word yet of survivors. And official Chinese media hinted that people should prepare for the worst.
“Wreckage and debris have been found on the scene, but to date no survivors have been found,” China’s state broadcaster, C.C.T.V. reported, citing rescuers.
An aerial picture posted by a state news outlet showed a deep, charred gash in the land that the plane created when it struck a terraced farm field. Another report shared footage of the same area covered in white debris.
“Survivors would be a miracle in the midst of tragedy,” Wang Ya’nan, the editor of China’s Aerospace Knowledge magazine told The Beijing News. After the plane struck the hillside at high speed and ignited fires, he said, “the chances of anyone from the plane surviving are minuscule.”
The search effort is likely to increasingly turn to looking for the remains of passengers, as well as evidence of what caused the crash. Chinese media reports have not mentioned whether any remains have been found amid the wreckage, but the crash site did not provide much hope of survivors.
“The plane plunged into the mountain,” Li Chenbin, a technician in the area of the crash told the China News Service. “The whole plane had disintegrated, it was in fragments scattered all around. I didn’t see anyone who lived through it.”
The hunt is also on for the so-called black boxes of flight data and voice recorders that could carry second-by-second information about the plane’s abrupt fall from the sky. Chinese crash investigators in Wuzhou announced that they would hold a news conference on Tuesday night to discuss the search for the black boxes.
But Mike Daniels, a former Federal Aviation Administration accident investigator who now works as an industry consultant, said there was no assurance of how much data could be recovered from the flight recorders, if they are found.
“With that kind of crash — that amount of speed and downward velocity — the recorders are going to be damaged,” he said in a telephone interview from Hawaii.
“Even if they find the recorders, are they actually going to be able to read them?” he said. “That’s going to be a huge challenge for the Chinese investigators.”
China’s record of safe air travel in the past two decades has become a point of pride for officials, and comfort for travelers.
The Chinese government, China Eastern Airlines and Boeing will all be under pressure to help explain how a plane could speed earthward with such destructive force.
Many people on Chinese social media sites have noted that China had gone 4,226 days without a major aviation accident, an enviable record after a string of disasters in the 1990s and early 2000s. Nearly three quarters of 11,800 flights that had been scheduled for Tuesday in China were canceled, Bloomberg reported, citing VariFlight, an aviation data firm.
The crash has already attracted a rush of speculation online about the cause.
Aviation experts have said the unusual trajectory of the plane — flying steadily, then turning sharply downward — opened up a range of possible explanations, including foul play or catastrophic equipment failure. But they widely emphasized that it was too early to do more than hypothesize about why the plane sped downward without any apparent warning signs.
“It really catches your eye when you see how rapidly the aircraft went from this horizontal flight,” Mr. Daniels said. “On any given investigation, you can’t rule out foul play at the very beginning,” he said. “It was so abrupt that everything needs to be looked at.”
A commentary on the Civil Aviation Administration of China’s news website warned against spreading rumors and conspiracy theories, and urged the public to wait until a thorough investigation had reached its findings.
That article denied speculation that China Eastern Airlines had cut its plane maintenance budget. The company’s spending on maintenance rose 12 percent from 2019 to 2021, it said. A widely circulated Chinese online posting on Monday claiming that the crash followed cuts in the airline’s spending had been censored by Tuesday morning.
Boeing said in an emailed statement that “our technical experts are prepared to assist with the investigation led by the Civil Aviation Administration of China.”
By late Monday search teams had poured into the area, assembling tents and command posts, setting up power supplies and lights, and lining up dozens of ambulances in the hope of finding anyone alive. Dozens of local volunteers on motorbikes also carried in water, food and tents.
But search efforts on Monday night were hampered by a lack of electricity and the remote location. Rain was forecast for Tuesday, which could make search efforts more difficult.
The plane was not a Boeing 737 Max, a different model that has resumed flying almost everywhere except China after a global ban prompted by deadly crashes in Indonesia in 2018 and Ethiopia in 2019.
The United States government and Boeing have both offered to send investigators to help in analyzing the causes of the China Eastern crash. Chinese state media has noted the offer, without saying whether China will accept it.
Chinese state media said the airline has confirmed that there were no foreign passengers aboard the plane. That is not unusual, as China has almost completely closed its borders to foreigners since March, 2020, so as to reduce the risk of Covid-19 infections being brought into the country.
Family members of the flight’s crew had gathered at a China Eastern Airlines office in Yunnan Province, according to Chinese state media. The southwestern city of Kunming, where the plane took off, is the capital of Yunnan. A team is being set up at that office to assist the families
By Monday afternoon, the identity of one of the passengers missing, and most likely dead, emerged: Fang Fang, the chief financial officer of Dinglong Culture, a mining and resources company in Yunnan Province, where the flight began. Her company said that she was on the flight, but denied rumors that six other company managers were also on it.
China’s vice premier, Liu He — a powerful official who usually steers economic policy — has been assigned to oversee the rescue effort and investigation into the causes of the disaster. On Monday, the top leader, Xi Jinping, issued orders to spare no effort in the search and rescue operation, and the investigation into the cause of the crash.
Past investigations into air disasters in China have sometimes taken a year or two to issue their findings, another article on the Chinese civil aviation authority’s website noted.
Hu Xijin, a former editor of The Global Times, a widely read Chinese newspaper controlled by the Communist Party, said on social media that the public should not wait that long for answers.
“Absolutely do not wait until the investigation has reached formal conclusions to release them to the public,” Mr. Hu wrote on Weibo, a Chinese social media service. “It would be best to constantly issue updates at a faster rhythm.”
By Tuesday afternoon, the China News Service reported, family members of people missing on the flight had arrived in Teng County to wait for any word.
Liu Yi contributed research.
Source: NY Times