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

Rescue workers assembled for a desperate search Tuesday for any survivors in the crash of a passenger plane carrying 132 people that plunged more than 20,000 feet in just over a minute before crashing in a remote mountain valley in southern China on Monday.

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

China’s air safety record has been strong in the last two decades but the crash will add another public safety concern for President Xi Jinping, whose government has been grappling with its biggest outbreak of Covid-19 cases since early 2020. For Boeing, the accident could renew the regulatory scrutiny that followed two crashes in recent years involving another plane, the 737 Max.

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

Then, about 2:20 p.m., the plane “suddenly started to lose altitude very fast,” Flightradar24 said in a tweet. It quickly descended 20,000 feet — an almost vertical drop — and appeared to briefly regain altitude around 8,000 feet before continuing its plunge, according to Flightradar24’s data.

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

Plumes of smoke floated over clusters of bamboo and banana trees. Farmers came across shards of wreckage, apparently from the plane’s wings and fuselage, some showing the lettering of 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.

Rescue workers by the hundreds flooded the site but, according to initial reports, encountered only debris — including parts of a plane wing and pieces of charred cloth — in the heavily wooded, remote area.

Pictures and video showed a frenzy of nighttime activity as rescuers assembled 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 carried in water, food and tents.

Rain, which has been forecast for the area, held off for at least much of the night. But showers were expected on Tuesday, and could hamper the search on hillsides covered in bushes, ferns and bamboo.

The plane was carrying 123 passengers and nine crew members, China’s civil aviation administration said. Family members of the crew had started gathering at the airline’s office in Kunming, according to state media, 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 night. “The company expresses its deep condolences to the passengers and crew members who died in the plane crash.”

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

China’s aviation industry had grown to become the world’s biggest before the pandemic ushered in lockdowns. But the path for the industry had been bumpy: China had a spate of deadly air accidents in the early 1990s before tightening its oversight. Over the past two decades, its airlines have produced 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 safety point of view,” said David Yu, a finance professor specializing in aviation at the Shanghai campus of New York University, said of China’s airline industry.

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

After Monday’s crash, Mr. Xi quickly issued a statement calling for rescuers to do their utmost to find survivors, and urging increased “safety checks in the civil aviation sector” to “ensure that people’s lives are absolutely safe.”

That promise of keeping Chinese citizens safe has become an important symbol of Mr. Xi’s authority. Mr. Xi, China’s most dominant leader in decades, has often cast the ruling Communist Party as the country’s guardian in a dangerous and uncertain world.

The searchers in Guangxi were joined by a Chinese vice premier, Liu He — a powerful official who usually steers economic policy — who has been assigned to oversee the rescue effort and investigation into the causes of the disaster.

Recent missteps in evacuating Chinese citizens from war-torn Ukraine and last year’s deadly flooding in Henan Province, which killed more than 300 people, have undercut that image. Still, Mr. Xi’s promise of accountability for the crash will raise expectations for a quick and thorough inquiry of Monday’s disaster.

Until the pandemic, Chinese airlines hired a sizable share of their pilots from overseas, as air travel 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 returned to their home countries in the last two years as China has halted almost all international air travel during the pandemic, and as domestic travel has shrunk somewhat as well. Chinese airlines now rely almost entirely on Chinese pilots, Mr. Yu said.

China has been designing 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 is set to be the first airline to operate the C919 in the months ahead, through one of its subsidiaries.

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 plunged 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 in Monday’s crash was delivered to China Eastern in 2015, according to Flightradar24. It was a 737-800 NG, a line that accounts for almost 17 percent of the nearly 25,000 passenger planes in service worldwide, according to Cirium, an aviation data provider.

Shares in China Eastern and those in Boeing fell in Hong Kong and New York, respectively, on Monday, with Boeing shares dropping 3.6 percent.

The newer single-aisle plane from Boeing, the 737 Max, drew intense global scrutiny after one crashed in Indonesia in late 2018 and a second crashed in Ethiopia. The model was grounded worldwide after the second crash, in March 2019. Boeing made a series of changes to the aircraft before it was approved again for commercial service in most countries 20 months later.

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

On Monday, Boeing offered its condolences to the families of the victims and said it was in contact with China Eastern and a safety agency in the United States. It also said it would help authorities in China that are investigating the crash.

Austin Ramzy,Niraj Chokshi,Joy Dong Liu Yi and Nadav Gavrielov contributed reporting.

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