A China Eastern Boeing 737-800 with 132 people on board crashed in a remote mountainous area of southern China on Monday, officials said, setting off a forest fire visible from space in the country’s worst air disaster in nearly a decade.
More than seven hours after communication was lost with the plane, there was still no word of survivors.
The Civil Aviation Administration of China said in a statement the crash occurred near the city of Wuzhou in the Guangxi region. The flight was traveling from Kunming in the southwestern province of Yunnan to the industrial center of Guangzhou along the east coast, it added.
Villagers were first to arrive at the forested area where the plane went down, sparking a blaze big enough to be seen on NASA satellite images. Hundreds of rescue workers were swiftly dispatched from Guangxi and neighboring Guangdong province.
The plane was carrying 123 passengers and nine crew members, the CAAC said, correcting earlier reports that 133 people had been on board.
Chinese President Xi Jinping called for an “all-out effort” by the rescue operation, as well as for an investigation into the crash and to ensure complete civil aviation safety.
State media reported all 737-800s in China Eastern’s fleet were ordered grounded, while broadcaster CCTV said the airliner had set up nine teams to deal with aircraft disposal, accident investigation, family assistance and other pressing matters.
The CAAC and China Eastern both said they had sent officials to the crash site in accordance with emergency measures.
State media said local police first received calls from villagers alerting the crash around 2:30 p.m. (0630 GMT). Guangxi provincial emergency management department said contact with the plane was lost at 2:15 p.m. (0615 GMT).
Chicago-based Boeing Co. said it was aware of the initial reports of the crash and was “working to gather more information.” Boeing stock dropped over 8% in pre-market trading early Monday.
Headquartered in Shanghai, China Eastern is one of the country’s top three airlines, operating scores of domestic and international routes serving 248 destinations.
China Eastern’s flight No. 5735 had been traveling at around 30,000 feet when suddenly, just after 2:20 p.m., the plane entered a deep dive at its cruising altitude speed of 455 knots (523 mph, 842 kph), according to data from flight-tracking website FlightRadar24.com. The data suggests the plane crashed within a minute and a half of whatever went wrong.
The plane stopped transmitting data just southwest of Wuzhou, a city of 3 million in eastern Guangxi.
The aircraft was delivered to the airliner from Boeing in June 2015 and had been flying for more than six years. China Eastern Airlines uses the Boeing 737-800 as one of the main workhorses of its fleet — of its over 600 planes, 109 are Boeing 737-800s.
China Eastern online made its website have a black-and-white homepage after the crash.
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.
Boeing began delivering the 737-800 to customers in 1997 and delivered the last of the series to China Eastern in 2020. It made over 5,200 of the narrow-body aircraft, a popular, single-aisle commuter plane.
The twin-engine, single aisle Boeing 737 is one of the world’s most popular planes for short and medium-haul flights. China Eastern operates multiple versions of the common aircraft, including the 737-800 and the 737 Max.
The deadliest crash involving a Boeing 737-800 came in January 2020, when Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard accidentally shot down a Ukraine International Airlines flight, killing all 176 people on board.
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.
China’s last deadly crash of a civilian jetliner was in August 2010.
—Ken Moritsugu, The Associated Press