Rough terrain and rainfall are hampering the search for clues into why a China Eastern plane inexplicably fell from the sky and crashed into a wooded mountainside, presumably killing all 132 people on board
Under rainy conditions, searchers using hand tools, drones and sniffer dogs were combing the crash site and a debris field spread across steep, heavily forested slopes in southern China for the black boxes containing the flight data and cockpit voice recorders, a well as any human remains.
Video clips posted by China’s state media showed small pieces of the Boeing 737-800 plane scattered over the area, some in green fields, others in burnt-out patches with raw earth exposed. Mud-stained wallets, bank and identity cards have also been recovered. Each piece of debris has a number next to it, the larger ones marked off by police tape.
Investigators say it is too early to speculate on the cause of the crash. Flight 5735 went into an unexplained dive an hour after departure and the plane stopped transmitting data 96 seconds into the fall.
It crashed Monday afternoon outside the city of Wuzhou in the Guangxi region. The plane had been flying from Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, to Guangzhou, an industrial center not far from Hong Kong on China’s southeastern coast.
An air-traffic controller tried to contact the pilots several times after seeing the plane’s altitude drop sharply, but got no reply, a grim-faced Zhu Tao, director of the Office of Aviation Safety at the Civil Aviation Authority of China, said at a Tuesday evening news conference.
“As of now, the rescue has yet to find survivors,” Zhu said. “The public security department has taken control of the site.”
China Eastern is headquartered in Shanghai and one of China’s three largest carriers with more than 600 planes, including 109 Boeing 737-800s. China’s Transport Ministry said China Eastern has grounded all of its 737-800s, a move that could further disrupt domestic air travel already curtailed because of the largest COVID-19 outbreak in China since the initial peak in early 2020.
The Boeing 737-800 has been flying since 1998 and has a well-established safety record. It is an earlier model than the 737 Max, which was grounded worldwide for nearly two years after deadly crashes in 2018 and 2019.
Monday’s crash was China’s worst in more than a decade. In August 2010, an Embraer ERJ 190-100 operated by Henan Airlines hit the ground short of the runway in the northeastern city of Yichun and caught fire. It carried 96 people and 44 of them died. Investigators blamed pilot error.
Kang reported from Kunming, China. Associated Press researcher Yu Bing and news assistant Caroline Chen in Beijing; researcher Si Chen in Shanghai; and video producer Olivia Zhang in Wuzhou, China; contributed to this report.