By Ken Moritsugu
A China Eastern Boeing 737-800 with 132 people on board crashed in a remote mountainous area of southern China on Monday, officials said, setting off a forest fire visible from space in the country’s worst air disaster in nearly a decade.
More than 12 hours after communication was lost with the plane, there was still no word of survivors.
The Civil Aviation Administration of China said in a statement that the crash occurred near the city of Wuzhou in the Guangxi region. The flight was traveling from Kunming in the southwestern province of Yunnan to the industrial center of Guangzhou along the east coast, it added.
China Eastern flight 5735 had been traveling 455 knots (523 mph, 842 kph) at around 30,000 feet when it entered a steep dive around 2:20 p.m. local time, according to data from flight-tracking website FlightRadar24.com. The plane stopped transmitting data 96 seconds later.
In this photo taken by mobile phone released by Xinhua News Agency, a piece of wreckage of the China Eastern's flight MU5735 are seen after it crashed on the mountain in Tengxian County, south China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region on Monday, March 21, 2022. A China Eastern Boeing 737-800 with 132 people on board crashed in a remote mountainous area of southern China on Monday, officials said, setting off a forest fire visible from space in the country's worst air disaster in nearly a decade. (Xinhua via AP)
Local villagers were first to arrive at the forested area where the plane went down and sparked a blaze big enough to be seen on NASA satellite images. Hundreds of rescue workers were swiftly dispatched from Guangxi and neighboring Guangdong province.
The plane was carrying 123 passengers and nine crew members, the CAAC said, correcting earlier reports that 133 people had been on board.
Chinese President Xi Jinping called for an “all-out effort” by the rescue operation, as well as for an investigation into the crash and to ensure complete civil aviation safety.
Relatives of crew members arrived at a China Eastern office near the Kunming airport where the plane took off, state broadcaster CCTV reported. On Monday night, an Associated Press journalist saw police officers and security guards patrolling outside the office with flashlights, ordering journalists to leave.
At a hotel near the airport, about a dozen people, some in jackets identifying them as members of China's aviation agency, huddled around tables and read documents.
State media reported all 737-800s in China Eastern’s fleet were ordered grounded. Aviation experts said it is unusual to ground an entire fleet of planes unless there is evidence of a problem with the model.
Boeing 737-800s have been flying since 1998, and Boeing has sold more than 5,100 of them. They have been involved in 22 accidents that totaled the planes and killed 612 people, according to data compiled by the Aviation Safety Network, an arm of the Flight Safety Foundation.
“There are thousands of them around the world. It’s certainly had an excellent safety record,” the foundation’s president, Hassan Shahidi, said of the 737-800.
China’s air-safety record has improved since the 1990s as air travel has grown dramatically with the rise of a burgeoning middle class. Before Monday, the last fatal crash of a Chinese airliner occurred in August 2010, when 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. All 44 people on board were killed. Investigators blamed pilot error.
Aviation experts said they expect that China will ask the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board for help, although a safety board spokesman said Monday that had not happened yet. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, which certified the 737-800 in the 1990s, said it was ready to help in the investigation if asked.
Chicago-based Boeing Co. said it was in contact with U.S. investigators “and our technical experts are prepared to assist with the investigation led by the Civil Aviation Administration of China.” Boeing shares fell more than 4% in afternoon trading in New York.
Crash investigations are usually led by officials in the country where the crash occurred, but they typically include the airplane’s manufacturer and the investigator or regulator in the manufacturer’s home country.
Shahidi said he expects investigators to comb through the maintenance history of the plane and its engines, the training and records of the pilots, air traffic control discussions and other topics.
Headquartered in Shanghai, China Eastern is one of the country’s top three airlines, operating scores of domestic and international routes serving 248 destinations.
The aircraft was delivered to the airliner from Boeing in June 2015 and had been flying for more than six years. China Eastern Airlines uses the Boeing 737-800 as a workhorse of its fleet — the airline has more than 600 planes, and 109 are Boeing 737-800s.
Broadcaster CCTV said China Eastern set up nine teams to deal with aircraft disposal, accident investigation, family assistance and other pressing matters.
The CAAC and China Eastern both said they had sent officials to the crash site in accordance with emergency measures.
China Eastern online made its website have a black-and-white homepage after the crash.
The accident quickly became a leading topic on China’s Twitter-like Weibo platform, with 1.34 billion views and 690,000 discussions. Many posts expressed condolences to the families of victims, while others questioned the planes’ safety.
The twin-engine, single-aisle Boeing 737 in various versions has been flying for more than 50 years and is one of the world’s most popular planes for short and medium-haul flights.
The 737 Max, a later version, was grounded worldwide for nearly two years after two crashes in 2018 and 2019 killed 346 people. China’s aviation regulator cleared the Max to return to service late last year, making the country the last major market to do so.
The deadliest crash involving a Boeing 737-800 came in January 2020, when Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard accidentally shot down a Ukraine International Airlines flight, killing all 176 people on board.
Associated Press researcher Yu Bing and news assistant Caroline Chen in Beijing, researcher Si Chen in Shanghai, videographer Dake Kang in Kunming, China, writer Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, video producer Penny Wang and writer Adam Schreck in Bangkok and airlines writer David Koenig in Dallas also contributed.
Updated on March 21, 2022, at 3:08 p.m. ET with the scene outside airline office and officials gathered at a nearby hotel; new comment from Boeing; notes that there is still no word of survivors more than 12 hours after contact with the plane was lost.