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China Eastern Jet’s Steep Plunge Suggests Little Chance of Survival

Search workers recovered identity cards, cellphones and purses from the crash of the Boeing plane that carried more than 130 people. But no survivors have been found.

A day after a Boeing 737 plane crashed in southern China, hundreds of firefighters, police officers and paramilitary troops were combing the region’s lush hillsides for survivors. Orthopedic surgeons and burn specialists waited at nearby hospitals. Students lined up for blood donation drives, according to Chinese news reports on Tuesday.

At the crash site, workers found burned identity cards, purses, cellphones and other belongings, news reports said. But the likelihood that any of the 132 people onboard the plane 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.

A staff member who answered the phone on Tuesday at the Wuzhou People’s Hospital near the crash site said the hospital had no word yet of survivors. And official Chinese media hinted that people should prepare for the worst.

Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters

“Wreckage and debris have been found on the scene, but to date no survivors have been found,” China’s state broadcaster, C.C.T.V. reported, citing rescuers.

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. 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.”

The search effort is likely to increasingly turn to looking for the remains of passengers, as well as evidence of what caused the crash. Above all, the hunt will be on for the so-called black boxes of flight data and voice recorders that could carry second-by-second information about the plane’s abrupt fall from the sky.

Visual China Group, via Getty Images

“The plane plunged into the mountain,” Li Chenbin, a technician in the area of the crash told the China News Service. “The whole plane had disintegrated, it was in fragments scattered all around. I didn’t see anyone who lived through it.”

China’s record of safe air travel in the past two decades has become a point of pride for officials, and comfort for travelers.

Now the Chinese government, China Eastern Airlines, as well as Boeing will be under pressure to help explain how a plane could speed earthward with such destructive force. 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.

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.”

By late Monday search teams had poured into the area, assembling 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 also carried in water, food and tents.

But search efforts on Monday night were hampered by a lack of electricity and the remote location. Rain was forecast for Tuesday, which could make search efforts more difficult.

Visual China Group, via Getty Images

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.

Chinese state media said the airline has confirmed that there were no foreign passengers aboard the plane. That is not unusual, as China has almost completely closed its borders to foreigners since March, 2020, so as to reduce the risk of Covid-19 infections being brought into the country.

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

Tingshu Wang/Reuters

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.

China Eastern Airlines, Boeing and the Chinese authorities have already attracted a rush of speculation online about the cause. Aviation experts have said the unusual midflight plunge of the plane opened up a range of possible explanations — including foul play or catastrophic equipment failure. But they widely emphasized that it was too early to do more than hypothesize about why the plane sped downward without any apparent warning signs.

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.

Noel Celis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

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, suggested 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.”

Liu Yi contributed research.

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