Emergency workers have found no survivors more than 24 hours after a Boeing 737 plane carrying 132 people crashed in southern China, officials said Tuesday.
Hundreds of firefighters, police officers and paramilitary troops have been scouring the hillsides for survivors, using flashlights into the night on Tuesday. But the likelihood that anyone made it out alive appeared increasingly slim.
The China Eastern Airlines plane, Flight MU5735, had plunged from 29,000 feet in the air to earth on Monday in Teng County in the region of Guangxi, scattering burning debris across the remote countryside. At the crash site, workers found parts of the plane, as well as personal belongings such as identity cards, purses and cellphones, news reports said.
Emergency workers were also focused on locating the plane’s so-called black boxes, Zhu Tao, the director of aviation safety at the Civil Aviation Administration of China, said at a news conference in Wuzhou city, near the crash site. Black boxes are flight data and voice recorders that will be crucial to determining what caused the crash. Mr. Zhu acknowledged that officials had uncovered little information so far.
“The aircraft was severely damaged in this accident, and the investigation is very difficult,” he said. “With the information currently available, it is still impossible to make a clear judgment on the cause of the accident.”
Mr. Zhu confirmed a few details about the trajectory of the plane that had emerged in flight data shared by Flightradar24, a tracking platform, while also describing for the first time how air traffic controllers had tried to contact the plane when they noticed something amiss.
The plane been cruising at about 29,000 feet around 2:17 p.m. on Monday, he said, but a few minutes later, air traffic controllers had noticed that the plane had suddenly lost altitude. He said the controllers immediately called the plane crew, but did not receive a reply after several attempts. By 2:23 p.m., the plane’s radar signal disappeared, he said, and it had crashed.
An aerial picture posted by a state news outlet showed a deep, charred gash in the land that the plane created when it struck a terraced farm field. The falling debris had split trees and bamboo groves, one journalist on the site said, and another report shared footage of the same area covered in white debris.
“Survivors would be a miracle in the midst of tragedy,” Wang Ya’nan, the editor of China’s Aerospace Knowledge magazine, told The Beijing News. After the plane struck the hillside at high speed and ignited fires, he said, “the chances of anyone from the plane surviving are minuscule.”
Still, orthopedic surgeons and burn specialists were mobilized at nearby hospitals. Students lined up for blood donation drives, according to Chinese news reports on Tuesday.
The search effort is likely to increasingly turn to looking for the remains of passengers. Late Monday night, a rescuer, Ou Ling, a local fire department official involved in the search, told the state broadcaster in a phone interview that his team had not found any survivors, but had seen “relatively large fragments of wings, as well as remains.”
Investigators will also be searching for evidence of what caused the crash.
It is unclear how much data could be retrieved from the flight recorders, according to Mike Daniel, a former Federal Aviation Administration accident investigator who now works as an industry consultant.
“With that kind of crash — that amount of speed and downward velocity — the recorders are going to be damaged,” he said in a telephone interview from Hawaii.
“Even if they find the recorders, are they actually going to be able to read them?” he said. “That’s going to be a huge challenge for the Chinese investigators.”
China’s record of safe air travel in the past two decades has become a point of pride for officials, and comfort for travelers.
The Chinese government, China Eastern Airlines and Boeing will all be under pressure to help explain how a plane could speed earthward with such destructive force.
China’s civil aviation authority announced a two-week drive of intensified safety checks on planes. Nearly three quarters of 11,800 flights that had been scheduled for Tuesday in China were canceled, Bloomberg reported, citing VariFlight, an aviation data firm.
Many people on Chinese social media sites have noted that China had gone 4,226 days without a major aviation accident, an enviable record after a string of disasters in the 1990s and early 2000s.
The crash has already attracted a rush of speculation online about the cause.
Aviation experts have said the unusual trajectory of the plane — flying steadily, then turning sharply downward — opened up a range of possible explanations, including foul play or catastrophic equipment failure. But they emphasized that it was too early to do more than hypothesize about why the plane sped downward without any apparent warning signs.
“It really catches your eye when you see how rapidly the aircraft went from this horizontal flight,” Mr. Daniel said. “On any given investigation, you can’t rule out foul play at the very beginning,” he said. “It was so abrupt that everything needs to be looked at.”
A commentary on the Civil Aviation Administration of China’s news website warned against spreading rumors and conspiracy theories, and urged the public to wait until a thorough investigation had reached its findings.
That article denied speculation that China Eastern Airlines had cut its plane maintenance budget. The company’s spending on maintenance rose 12 percent from 2019 to 2021, it said. A widely circulated Chinese online posting on Monday claiming that the crash followed cuts in the airline’s spending had been censored by Tuesday morning.
Sun Shiying, an official with China Eastern Airlines, said at the news conference on Tuesday that the plane and its nine crew members had met flight requirements before takeoff. He did not directly respond to questions about the aircraft’s maintenance history and the number of flight hours the pilot had accumulated.
Boeing said in an emailed statement that “our technical experts are prepared to assist with the investigation led by the Civil Aviation Administration of China.”
The plane was not a Boeing 737 Max, a different model that has resumed flying almost everywhere except China after a global ban prompted by deadly crashes in Indonesia in 2018 and Ethiopia in 2019.
The United States government and Boeing have both offered to send investigators to help in analyzing the causes of the China Eastern crash. Chinese state media has noted the offer, without saying whether China will accept it.
Officials said Tuesday that there were no foreign passengers on the plane. The airline said that it has contacted the families of all 132 people and assembled a group of experts to help work with the relatives.
Family members of the flight’s crew had gathered at a China Eastern Airlines office in Yunnan Province, according to Chinese state media. The southwestern city of Kunming, where the plane took off, is the capital of Yunnan. A team is being set up at that office to assist the families.
By Monday afternoon, the identity of one of the passengers missing, and most likely dead, emerged: Fang Fang, the chief financial officer of Dinglong Culture, a mining and resources company in Yunnan Province, where the flight began. Her company said that she was on the flight, but denied rumors that six other company managers were also on it.
China’s vice premier, Liu He — a powerful official who usually steers economic policy — has been assigned to oversee the rescue effort and investigation into the causes of the disaster. On Monday, the top leader, Xi Jinping, issued orders to spare no effort in the search and rescue operation, and the investigation into the cause of the crash.
Past investigations into air disasters in China have sometimes taken a year or two to issue their findings, another article on the Chinese civil aviation authority’s website noted.
Hu Xijin, a former editor of The Global Times, a widely read Chinese newspaper controlled by the Communist Party, said on social media that the public should not wait that long for answers.
“Absolutely do not wait until the investigation has reached formal conclusions to release them to the public,” Mr. Hu wrote on Weibo, a Chinese social media service. “It would be best to constantly issue updates at a faster rhythm.”
By Tuesday afternoon, the China News Service reported, family members of people missing on the flight had arrived in Teng County to wait for any word.
Liu Yi, Claire Fu, Li You, John Liu and Joy Dong contributed research.