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Plane carrying 132 crashes in China, Xi orders probe

BEIJING (AFP) – A China Eastern passenger jet carrying 132 people crashed onto a mountain in southern China yesterday causing a large fire, 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 its cause.

The Boeing 737-800 flight from the city of Kunming to the southern hub of Guangzhou “lost airborne contact over Wuzhou” in the Guangxi region yesterday afternoon, according to the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC).

“This flight has crashed,” the CAAC said, adding the jet was carrying 123 passengers and nine crew members.

Hundreds of firefighters were dispatched to the scene in Teng county near the city of Wuzhou, state media reported, as nearby villagers rushed to help the rescue effort.

“Everyone went to the mountains,” Tang Min, who runs a small restaurant a few kilometres from the crash site, told AFP by telephone.

A worker from the China Eastern holds a signboard waiting to lead relatives of the victims aboard China Eastern’s flight MU5735 to a cordoned-off area. PHOTOS: AP
A temporarily cordoned-off area for the relatives of the victims

Fears for the fate of the jet spread yesterday afternoon as local media reported that China Eastern flight MU5735 had not arrived as planned in Guangzhou after taking off from Kunming shortly after 1pm.

Flight tracking website FlightRadar24 showed no data for the flight after 2.22pm.

The tracker showed the plane sharply dropped from an altitude of 29,100 feet to 3,225 feet in three minutes, before flight information ceased.

State broadcaster CCTV said the crash “caused a mountain fire” which was later extinguished.

One villager told a local news site that the plane had “completely fallen apart” and he had seen forest areas destroyed by the fire it caused when crashing into the mountainside.

China Eastern changed its website to black and white only yesterday 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.

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 arrivals board at Guangzhou airport showed the jet’s flight information for hours after it had crashed, as airport staff in full PPE held up signs to help relatives of the passengers assemble.

As dusk fell, there was still no information on the passengers.

A villager near the crash site surnamed Liu told state-run China News Service that he had driven a motorbike to the scene after hearing a loud explosion.

He said he saw debris on the ground, including an aircraft wing and fragments of clothing hanging from trees.

China had enjoyed an enviable air safety record in recent years as the country was crisscrossed by newly built airports and serviced by new airlines established to match breakneck growth over the last few decades.

A Henan Airlines flight crashed in northeastern Heilongjiang province in 2010, killing at least 42 out of 92 people on board, although the final toll was never confirmed. It was the last Chinese commercial passenger flight crash that caused civilian casualties.

The deadliest Chinese commercial flight crash was a China Northwest Airlines crash in 1994, which killed all 160 onboard.