After China’s Worst Air Crash in Years, a Desperate Hunt for Survivors

Rescuers searched a remote mountain valley in southern China on Tuesday for survivors of the crash of a passenger plane carrying 132 people that plunged more than 20,000 feet in just over a minute.

So far, no survivors have been found, a state broadcaster reported Tuesday, the morning after Monday’s crash.

China Eastern Airlines, which operated the Boeing 737-800, and the central government are investigating the cause of the crash, which is likely to be the country’s worst aviation disaster in more than a decade.

China’s air safety record has been strong over the past two decades, but the crash will add another public safety concern to President Xi Jinping, whose government is grappling with the largest outbreak of Covid-19 cases since early 2020 . For Boeing, the accident would see a renewed regulatory scrutiny that followed two crashes in recent years involving another aircraft, the 737 Max.

Flight MU-5735 took off from Kunming, the capital of southwestern Yunnan province, at 1:11 p.m., according to a tracking platform Flightradar24. About halfway to its destination, Guangzhou, the commercial center in southeastern China, the plane flew at 29,100 feet.

Then, at about 2:20 p.m., the plane “suddenly began to lose altitude very quickly”, Flightradar24 said in a tweet† According to Flightradar24 data, it quickly descended 20,000 feet — a near-vertical drop — and appeared to briefly regain altitude around 8,000 feet before continuing its dive.

A thunderous thump then rippled across a tree-covered valley, where usually the loudest sounds come from swarms of insects and villagers’ motorbikes. Initially, residents of Teng County in the Guangxi region were stunned by the explosion, they told Chinese news outlets.

plumes of smoke hovered over clusters of bamboo and banana trees† Farmers found wreckage, apparently from the aircraft’s wings and fuselage, some of which bore the letters China Eastern. And villagers gathered to put out some of the fires that had broken out in the hills, one said in a telephone interview with The New York Times.

Hundreds of rescuers flooded the site, but early reports only found debris – including parts of an airplane wing and pieces of charred dust – in the heavily forested, remote area.

Photos and videos showed a frenzy of nighttime activity as rescuers gathered tents and command posts, installed power supplies and lights, and lined up dozens of ambulances hoping to find someone alive. Dozens of local volunteers on motors carried in water, food and tents.

The rain, which was forecast for the area, did not stop for much of the night. But showers were expected on Tuesday, which could hamper searches on shrub, fern and bamboo-covered slopes.

The plane was carrying 123 passengers and nine crew members, China’s civil aviation administration said. According to state media, relatives of the crew had started at the airline’s office in Kunming and relatives of the passengers were at the airport in Guangzhou, the plane’s destination.

“The cause of the plane crash is still under investigation and the company will actively cooperate with relevant investigations,” China Eastern said in a statement Monday evening. “The company extends its deepest condolences to the passengers and crew who died in the plane crash.”

The Shanghai-based airline is the second largest in China by passenger numbers. Like China Southern and Air China, which round out the top three airlines, China Eastern is controlled by the government.

The Chinese aviation industry had become the the world’s largest before the pandemic ushered in the lockdown. But the path for the industry was bumpy: China had a spate of fatal plane crashes in the early 1990s before tightening its surveillance. Over the past two decades, airlines have set one of the world’s best air safety records.

“Historically it was questionable, but in the new era it has been very good from a security point of view,” David Yu, a financial professor specializing in aviation at New York University’s Shanghai campus, said of China’s aviation industry.

The country’s last major crash was in 2010, when an Embraer plane operated by Henan Airlines crashed and burned while trying to land on a foggy runway in northeast China. Of the 96 people on board, 44 died.

After Monday’s crash, Mr Xi quickly issued a statement calling on rescuers to do their utmost to find survivors, and to push for more “civil aviation security checks” to “ensure people’s lives are absolutely safe.” is”.

That pledge to keep Chinese citizens safe has become an important symbol of Mr Xi’s authority. Mr Xi, China’s most dominant leader in decades, has often appointed the ruling Communist Party as the country’s keeper in a dangerous and uncertain world.

The searchers in Guangxi were joined by a Chinese Deputy Prime Minister, Liu He — a powerful official who usually directs economic policy — who has been appointed to oversee rescue efforts and investigate the causes of the disaster.

Recent missteps in the evacuation of Chinese civilians from war-torn Ukraine and last year’s deadly floods in Henan province, which killed more than 300 people, have undermined that image. However, the promise of Mr. Xi to take responsibility for the crash raise expectations for a prompt and thorough investigation into Monday’s disaster.

Until the pandemic, Chinese airlines hired a significant portion of their pilots from abroad, as air traffic grew faster than China’s ability to train its own pilots. China developed a reputation for offering some of the world’s highest salaries for experienced foreign pilots.

But many of these foreign pilots have returned to their home countries in the past two years, as China has halted almost all international air travel during the pandemic, and domestic travel has also shrunk somewhat. Chinese airlines now rely almost entirely on Chinese pilots, Mr Yu said.

China has designed its own alternative to the Boeing 737-800 that crashed on Monday. That model, the C919, is being built in Shanghai by a state-owned company. China Eastern will be the first airline to operate the C919 through one of its subsidiaries in the coming months.

China Eastern’s last fatal crash was in 2004, when a Bombardier CRJ-200 flying from the city of Baotou in Inner Mongolia to Shanghai crashed into a frozen lake shortly after takeoff, killing 55 people. The disaster was caused by ice on the wings, safety regulators said.

The Boeing plane that crashed Monday was delivered to China Eastern in 2015, according to Flightradar24. It was a 737-800 NG, a line that accounts for nearly 17 percent of the nearly 25,000 passenger jets in service worldwide, according to Cirium, an aviation data provider.

Shares in China Eastern and Boeing fell in Hong Kong and New York on Monday, while Boeing shares fell 3.6 percent.

Boeing’s newer one-aisle plane, the 737 Max, gained worldwide attention after one crashed in Indonesia and a second in Ethiopia in late 2018. The model was grounded worldwide after the second crash, in March 2019. Boeing made a series of changes to the aircraft before re-approving it for commercial service in most countries 20 months later.

But China waited longer than most countries to get the 737 Max flying again. China’s aviation regulators only granted it approval in early December, but demanded that Chinese airlines prove that they had implemented all of Boeing’s changes before actually flying back on commercial routes.

Boeing on Monday expressed its condolences to the families of the victims and said it is in contact with China Eastern and a security agency in the United States. It also said it would aid authorities in China investigating the crash.

Reporting contributed by Austin RamzyNiraj ChokshiJoy Dong Liu Yi and Nadav Gavrielov


SOURCE – www.nytimes.com

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