A China Eastern Airlines passenger plane carrying 132 people has crashed in southern China, shortly after losing contact with air traffic control and dropping thousands of metres in under three minutes.
There was no immediate confirmation of the number of casualties, but the disaster prompted an unusually swift public reaction from President Xi Jinping, who said he was “shocked” and ordered an immediate investigation into the cause of the crash.
China Eastern “expresses its deep condolences for the passengers and crew members who died in the plane crash,” the airline said in a filing with the Shanghai Stock Exchange.
There was no word on the cause of the crash. State broadcaster CCTV said it “caused a mountain fire” which was later extinguished.
China Eastern flight MU5735 from the city of Kunming to the southern hub of Guangzhou “lost airborne contact over Wuzhou” in the Guangxi region on Monday afternoon, according to the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC).
“This flight has crashed,” the CAAC said, adding there were 123 passengers and nine crew on board the Boeing 737-800 plane.
Boeing Chief Executive Dave Calhoun told employees that the manufacturer had offered the full support of its technical experts in the crash investigation.
“Trust that we will be doing everything we can to support our customer and the accident investigation during this difficult time, guided by our commitment to safety, transparency, and integrity at every step,” Calhoun said in an email to employees.
Fears for the fate of the aircraft spread on Monday afternoon as local media reported that China Eastern flight MU5735 had not arrived as planned in Guangzhou after taking off from Kunming shortly after 1:00pm (0500 GMT).
Flight tracking website FlightRadar24 showed no data for the flight after 2:22 pm.
The tracker showed the plane sharply dropped from an altitude of 29,100 feet to 3,225 feet (8,870 to 982 metres) in three minutes, before flight information ceased.
Chinese media shared brief highway video footage from a vehicle’s dashcam apparently showing a jet diving to the ground.
— ChinaAviationReview (@ChinaAvReview) March 21, 2022
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 neighbouring Guangdong province.
Al Jazeera’s Katrina Yu said it was the biggest aviation incident China had had in more than a decade and rescue efforts were likely to be challenging.
“You can get a sense of how remote this area is,” Yu said.
“Because of how difficult this terrain is you can see that it is not going to be easy to get rescue teams there very quickly.”
China Eastern is one of China’s three major airlines, operating scores of domestic and international routes serving 248 destinations.
The airline changed its website to black and white only on Monday afternoon, and opened an emergency assistance phone number.
A January company report said China Eastern had 289 Boeing 737-series aircraft in its 751-strong fleet.
The safety record of the country’s aviation industry has been among the best in the world over the past decade.
The twin-engine, single-aisle Boeing 737 is one of the world’s most popular planes for short and medium-haul flights.
The 737 Max version was grounded worldwide after two fatal crashes. China’s aviation regulator cleared that plane to return to service late last year, making the country the last major market to do so.
According to Aviation Safety Network, China’s last fatal jet accident was in 2010, when 44 of 96 people on board were killed when an Embraer E-190 regional jet flown by Henan Airlines crashed on approach to Yichun airport in low visibility.
The deadliest Chinese commercial flight crash was a China Northwest Airlines crash in 1994, which killed all 160 onboard.
Xi called for “all efforts” towards the rescue and to find out the “cause of the accident as soon as possible”, according to CCTV.
“We are shocked to learn of the China Eastern MU5735 accident,” he said, calling for “the absolute safety of the sector and people’s lives”.
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.
Drone footage released by China Fire and Rescue Department shows the scene at the #MU5735 crash site.
The Boeing 737 plane, carrying 132 people, crashed on Monday afternoon in south China's Guangxi. The number of casualties is still unknown. pic.twitter.com/zXPyyzABEB
— CGTN (@CGTNOfficial) March 21, 2022