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No survivors were found among the 123 passengers and nine crew members. Video clips posted by Chinese state media show small pieces of the Boeing 737-800 plane scattered across a vast forest area, some in green fields, others in burnt patches of raw earth exposed after fires in the trees.

Mud-stained purses. bank cards. Official ID cards. Poignant memories of 132 presumed lost lives were prepared by rescuers who scoured a remote Chinese mountainside on Tuesday for the wreckage of a China Eastern flight that inexplicably fell from the sky the day before and burst into a massive fireball.

No survivors were found among the 123 passengers and nine crew members. Video clips posted by Chinese state media show small pieces of the Boeing 737-800 plane scattered across a vast forest area, some in green fields, others in burnt patches of raw earth exposed after fires in the trees. Each piece of rubble has a number next to it, the larger ones are marked with police tape.

As family members gathered at the destination and departure airport, it remained a mystery what caused the plane to fall from the sky shortly before it allegedly started its descent into the southern China metropolis of Guangzhou. Searching for the black boxes, which contain the flight data and cockpit sound recorders, would be difficult, the official Xinhua News Agency said, and would involve drones and manual searches.

The crash left a deep pit in the mountainside, Xinhua said, citing rescuers. Chen Weihao, who saw the falling plane while working on a farm, told the news agency it hit a hole in the mountain where no one lived.

“The plane appeared intact as it nosed through. Within seconds it crashed,” Chen said.

China Eastern Flight 5735 crashed outside the city of Wuzhou in the Guangxi region while flying from Kunming, the capital of southwestern Yunnan province, to Guangzhou, an industrial center not far from Hong Kong on China’s southeast coast. It ignited a fire big enough to see on NASA satellite images before firefighters could put it out.

There were no foreigners on board the lost flight, the state ministry said, citing a preliminary assessment.

Dinglong Culture, a Guangzhou company in mining as well as TV and film production, said in a statement to the Shenzhen Stock Exchange that its CFO, Fang Fang, was a passenger. Zhongxinghua, an accounting firm used by Dinglong, said two of its employees were also on the run.

Surrounded by mountains on three sides, the crash site is only accessible by foot and motorbike over a steep dirt road in the semi-tropical Guangxi region, famous for some of China’s most spectacular scenery.

Rain fell on Tuesday afternoon as excavators dug a path to ease access, state broadcaster CCTV said. The steepness of the slope made placing heavy equipment difficult.

Near the crash site, an operating theater was set up with rescue vehicles, ambulances and an emergency power supply truck parked in the narrow space. Soldiers and rescuers combed the charred site of the crash and the surrounding dense vegetation.

Police restricted access and checked every vehicle entering Molang, a village near the accident site. Five people with swollen eyes walked out of the village, got into a car and left. Bystanders said they were relatives of the passengers.

Relatives gathered at Kunming and Guangzhou airports. People draped in pink blankets and slumped in massage chairs were seen in a traveler’s rest room in the basement of the one in Kunming. Workers rolled up mattresses and brought meals in bags. A security guard blocked an AP reporter, saying that “interviews are not accepted”. In Guangzhou, relatives were escorted to a shelter manned by workers wearing full protective gear to protect themselves from the coronavirus.

At least five hotels with more than 700 rooms have been requisitioned for relatives in Wuzhou’s Teng province, Chinese media reported.

Workers in dangerous suits set up a registration desk and conducted COVID-19 tests at the entrance of a hotel, outside Molang. A sign read: “The hotel is requisitioned for emergency use on March 21.” At another hotel, a group of women, some wearing Red Cross-marked vests, registered at a hotel desk set up outside.

The country’s first fatal plane crash in more than a decade dominated news and social media in China. World leaders including Boris Johnson of Britain, Narendra Modi of India and Justin Trudeau of Canada expressed their condolences on Twitter.

Dave Calhoun, Boeing’s chief executive, said the company was deeply saddened by the news and had offered the full support of its technical experts to assist with the investigation.

“The thoughts of all of us at Boeing are with the passengers and crew…as well as their families and loved ones,” he wrote in a message to Boeing employees.

The plane had been en route for about an hour, at an altitude of 29,000 feet (8,840 meters), when it entered a steep, high-speed dive around 2:20 p.m., according to data from The plane plunged to 7,400 feet before briefly regaining about 1,200 feet in altitude, then resurfaced. The aircraft stopped transmitting data 96 seconds after it began to dive.

The aircraft was delivered to the airline in June 2015 and has been flying for more than six years.

Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport, where the flight was headed, is one of China’s major aviation hubs. It is the home of China Southern Airlines. As the pandemic turned air traffic upside down, it rocketed past Beijing and Atlanta to claim the title of the world’s busiest airport in 2020 – the most recent year for which annual data is available – with more than 43 million passengers.

Guangzhou is the capital of Guangdong Province, home to export-driven factories that make smartphones, toys, furniture and other goods. The Auto City district has joint ventures operated by Toyota, Nissan and others. Kunming, the departure city located 1,100 kilometers (680 miles) to the west, is the capital of Yunnan Province, an agricultural, mining, and tourism center bordering Southeast Asia.

China Eastern, headquartered in Shanghai, has grounded all of its 737-800s, China’s transport ministry said. Aviation experts said it is unusual to ground an entire fleet of planes unless there is evidence of a problem with the model.
The airline is one of China’s top three airlines with more than 600 aircraft, including 109 Boeing 737-800s. The grounding could further disrupt domestic air traffic, which had already been curtailed amid China’s largest COVID-19 outbreak since its first spike in early 2020.

The Boeing 737-800 has been flying since 1998 and has an excellent safety record, said Hassan Shahidi, president of the Flight Safety Foundation. It is an earlier model than the 737 Max, which was grounded worldwide for nearly two years after deadly crashes in 2018 and 2019.

Before Monday, the last fatal crash of a Chinese passenger plane occurred in August 2010, when a Henan Airlines Embraer ERJ 190-100 hit the ground just off the runway in the northeastern city of Yichun and caught fire. It carried 96 people and 44 of them died. Investigators blamed the pilot’s error.

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