All 132 people on board the plane that crashed into a mountainside in China earlier this week have been confirmed dead.
The China Eastern flight from the city of Kunming in southwestern China was flying at 29,000 feet (8,800 metres) on Monday when it suddenly nosedived into a mountainous area, shortly before it would have started its descent to the airport in Guangzhou, a provincial capital on China’s southeastern coast.
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Online tracking data showed the Boeing 737-800 rapidly dropped to 7,850 feet (2,400 metres) in just over a minute.
An air traffic controller tried to contact the pilots several times after seeing the plane’s altitude drop sharply but got no reply, officials have said.
“All 123 passengers and nine crew members of flight MU5735 of China Eastern airlines have been killed on board on March 21,” Hu Zhenjiang, deputy director-general of the Civil Aviation Administration of China, told a press conference on Saturday.
“The identity of 120 victims has been determined by DNA identification.”
Construction excavators dug into the crash site on Saturday in the search for wreckage, remains and the second black box.
Searchers found the cockpit voice recorder on Wednesday but have yet to find the flight data recorder.
Workers wearing knee-high rubber boots used shovels and other hand tools to sift through the earthen slopes in a 20-meter (65-foot) deep pit left by the plane. Debris and other items were collected in dozens of rectangular, mud-stained plastic containers.
Pumps were used to drain water as muddy conditions in the rainy Guizhou region hampered the search.
Authorities said that forensic and criminal investigation experts had confirmed the identities of 114 passengers and six crew members.
China Eastern, one of China’s four major airlines, and its subsidiaries have grounded all of their 737-800 aircraft, a total of 223 planes.
The carrier said the grounding was a precaution, not a sign there was anything wrong.
China Eastern had earlier said the crashed plane, which was nearly seven years old, had met all airworthiness requirements pre-flight.
The disaster provoked an unusually swift public response from President Xi Jinping, who ordered a probe into its cause as aviation authorities pledged an extensive two-week check-up of China’s vast passenger fleet.
The crash affects the return of Boeing’s 737 MAX to China, the last big market where the US plane-maker is still awaiting approval to resume flying following crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia that killed a combined 346 people in 2018 and 2019.