Finding China Eastern black boxes ‘key task’ for search teams

No survivors have been found since the plane plunged from its cruising altitude during a flight to Guangzhou on Monday afternoon.

A woman squats on brown earth to light candles as part of a Buddhist ceremony for victims of the China Eastern plane crash
A woman takes part in a Buddhist ceremony in honour of those on board flight MU5735 victims in a field close to the site where the China Eastern plane crashed [Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters]

Rain has forced the suspension of the search of a remote mountainside in southern China for the black boxes of the China Eastern Airlines plane that plunged from the sky on Monday with 132 people on board, as authorities warned the severe damage to the aircraft would make it difficult to establish the cause of the crash.

State television said the rain, which is forecast to continue all week, had raised the risk to search and rescue teams because of the risk of landslides.

Flight MU5735 was on its way from Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, to the southern city of Guangzhou when it suddenly plummeted from its cruising altitude about an hour before it was due to land. The impact of the crash left scraps of twisted metal on the ground and scattered passengers’ belongings across the steeply forested hills.

No survivors have been found, Zhu Tao, director of aviation safety at the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), told reporters late on Tuesday.

“The jet was seriously damaged during the crash, and investigations will face a very high level of difficulty,” Zhu said at the first government briefing on the disaster.

“Given the information currently available, we still do not have a clear assessment of the cause for the crash,” he said, adding that the aircraft did not respond to repeated calls from air controllers during its rapid descent.

The crash is China’s first since 2010 and follows significant safety improvements since the 1990s.

Search teams worked through the night using their hands, picks, sniffer dogs, and other equipment to look for survivors, state broadcaster CCTV reported.

The steep, rough terrain and the fact that debris had been spread across a wide area were complicating the search for the plane’s two black boxes – one in the tail and one in the cockpit –  which record flight data and cockpit discussions.

Finding the black boxes, which should provide some clues as to what happened, is a “key task”, the Global Times reported, saying that drones had also been deployed n the search.

Metal debris in the white colours of China Eastern strewn on the hillside in southern China
Debris from the plane has been scattered across a wide area of forested and hilly terrain, complicating efforts to find out what caused the crash [China Daily via Reuters]

The boxes are built to withstand explosions, disintegration, high temperature fires and other damage, and are also coloured bright orange to make it easier for them to be found on land.

“The investigators will be looking at all aspects of this flight, including any mechanical, or structural issues,” Hassan Shahidi, president and CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation, told Al Jazeera. “They will be looking into the maintenance history of the aircraft as well as records of pilot training. Boeing is expected to be part of the process to provide the necessary expertise.  Investigators would want to find the flight data recorder and the voice recorder to find out exactly what happened.”

Questions have mounted about the cause of the crash, which saw the Boeing 737-800 drop 20,000 feet (6,096 metres) in little more than a minute before plunging to the ground.

The airline has officially acknowledged that some on board the aircraft, which was travelling from the city of Kunming to the southern hub of Guangzhou, had lost their lives, but has stopped short of declaring all on board as dead.

The worst Chinese commercial flight accident was a China Northwest Airlines crash in 1994 that killed all 160 people on board.

‘Miss you forever’

In Guangzhou airport, staff assisted the families and friends of the 123 passengers and nine crew members who were on the plane, as they waited for news.

A user on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform, wrote that he was a friend of a crew member on the crashed plane.

“I will miss you forever,” he wrote, describing the “enthusiasm” his friend took to his new job this year.

The disaster prompted an unusually swift public reaction from President Xi Jinping, who said he was “shocked” and called for “absolute safety” in air travel.

State media said Vice Premier Liu He, a powerful official close to Xi who usually deals with economic matters, had been dispatched to the area to oversee rescue and investigation work.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies