Rescuers conduct search operations at the site of a plane crash in Tengxian County in southern China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, on March 22, 2022. Image Credit: AP

WUZHOU, China: Pilots of a doomed China Eastern Airlines Corp. Flight 5735 failed to respond to multiple calls from Chinese air-traffic controllers after tipping into a deadly nosedive, authorities said at a press conference.

Investigators are sifting through evidence to understand why the Boeing Co. 737-800 NG plane carrying 132 people crashed in southern China on Monday. It’s too early to draw any clear judgments about the cause, a Chinese air-safety official said at a press conference late Tuesday.

EXPLAINER: What is known about the China Eastern plane crash
The crash of a Boeing 737-800 passenger jet in China’s southwest started a fire big enough to be seen from space and forced rescuers to search a rugged, remote mountainside.
One day after the China Eastern Airlines flight plunged from the sky, there are more questions than answers.
WHAT CAUSED THE CRASH?: The cause is unknown. Flight 5735 was at 29,000 feet (8,800 meters) on Monday afternoon when it went into a dive about an hour into its flight, according to flight-tracking website
The plane plunged to 7,400 feet (2,200 meters) before regaining about 1,200 feet (360 meters), then dived again. It crashed into the side of a mountain in a remote, forested area outside the city of Wuzhou.
State media and Chinese regulators gave no indication the pilot reported trouble or other information that might shed light on the cause of the disaster. The plane stopped transmitting data 96 seconds after it started to fall.
Rescue workers planned to use drones in the search for the plane’s black boxes, which should contain information from instruments and sound from the cockpit.
Confirming the cause of a plane crash sometimes takes months or years due to the need to gather badly damaged debris and examine specialized technical factors.
HOW MANY PEOPLE WERE ABOARD? DID ANY SURVIVE?: The plane was carrying 123 passengers and nine crew members from the city of Kunming in China’s southwest to Guangzhou, an export hub in the southeast. No survivors have been found as rescuers search the rugged, charred mountainside in the semitropical Guangxi region. No foreigners are believed to have been on board. Two Chinese companies said their employees were on the flight, including the CFO of Guangzhou-based Dinglong Culture Co. whose interests range from mining to TV and movie production. Family members gathered in closed-off waiting areas at the airports in both Guangzhou and Kunming. Chinese news reports said five hotels with 700 rooms had been requisitioned closer to the crash site for family members.
IS THIS THE SAME BOEING MODEL INVOLVED IN EARLIER CRASHES THAT RESULTED IN ITS GROUNDING?: No. The plane that crashed was a Boeing 737-800, not the Boeing 737 Max, a newer model that was temporarily grounded worldwide following two deadly crashes in Indonesia in 2018 and Ethiopia in 2019. The widely used Boeing 737-800 has been flying since 1998 and has an excellent safety record, said Hassan Shahidi, president of the Flight Safety Foundation. They have been involved in 22 accidents that damaged the planes beyond repair and killed 612 people.
China Eastern grounded all of its 737-800s after the crash, China’s Transport Ministry said.
The Boeing 737 Max, which entered service in 2017, was grounded by regulators following the two crashes. They were blamed on a computer system that pushed the nose downward in flight and couldn’t be overridden by pilots.
Airlines were allowed to resume using the 737 Max after Boeing redesigned the system in a process overseen by regulators from the United States, Europe, China and the Middle East.

The dive by the China Eastern Airlines Corp. jet from about 29,000 feet (8,840 meters) is baffling air-crash specialists. Boeing has offered to help China’s investigation. China Eastern grounded its fleet of 737-800s, and thousands of domestic flights were cancelled on Tuesday across the nation. Chinese officials ordered a sweeping two-week safety review.

The velocity of the crash, which left twisted metal and scattered passengers’ belongings across a swathe of forest, meant no survivors had been found nearly 36 hours after Monday’s crash.

It is China’s deadliest air disaster in three decades, in a country with an enviable air safety record. “With the current information, we are unable to make a clear judgment on the cause of the accident,” Zhu Tao, director of the aviation safety office at China’s aviation authority, said late Tuesday - adding that the focus is now on “the search for flight recorders.”

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Paramilitary police officers conducting a search at the site of the China Eastern Airlines plane crash in Tengxian county, Wuzhou city, in China's southern Guangxi region. Image Credit: AFP

Questions have mounted over the cause of the crash, which saw the stricken jet drop 20,000 feet (6,096 metres) in just over a minute before plunging into rugged terrain in southern China on Monday afternoon.

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

President Xi Jinping quickly called for a full probe following the crash as search teams armed with drones descended upon the site in a forested, rural area of Guangxi province.

The jet speared into a hillside near Wuzhou in the Guangxi region. Witnesses said the aircraft disintegrated and emergency teams haven’t found any survivors.

A jet appeared to dive to the ground at an angle of about 35 degrees from the vertical in video images from a vehicle’s dashboard camera, according to Chinese media. Reuters could not immediately verify the footage.

No survivors have been found yet, said Zhu Tao, director of aviation safety at the Civil Aviation Administration of China, told reporters.

“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.

On Tuesday, rescuers combed heavily forested mountain slopes in southern China, using shovels and torches in their search for victims and flight recorders from the jet that crashed with 132 people on board.

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About 600 soldiers, firefighters and police marched to the crash site, a patch of about 1 sq km in a location hemmed in by mountains on three sides, after excavators cleared a path, state television said.

It added that the search for the recorders, or “black boxes”, of the Boeing 737-800 involved in China’s first crash of a commercial jetliner since 2010, would be carried out in grid-by-grid fashion, probably through the night.

‘Sound like thunder’

On Tuesday, scorch marks were visible from the crash and resulting fire, rescue workers told AFP, with one speculating that passengers had been “totally incinerated” from the intensity of the blaze.

A villager near the sprawling crash site, giving only his surname Ou, recounted hearing a “sound like thunder” followed by a blaze that blistered the surrounding hills.

A torn wallet and a burned camera lens were among the eviscerated possessions captured on video by a reporter from the state-run People’s Daily who was able to enter the crash site.

But AFP journalists were blocked at a hillside checkpoint by a group of men identifying themselves as Communist Party members who said they had “orders from above” to prevent access.

The disaster occurred after a high-speed vertical nosedive, according to a video carried by Chinese media. AFP could not immediately verify the video’s authenticity.

‘Miss you forever’

Flight MU5735, which took off from Kunming shortly after 1pm (0500 GMT), lost contact over Wuzhou, a city in the Guangxi region, according to China’s aviation authority.

The foreign ministry said on Tuesday they believed all passengers on board were Chinese nationals.

In Guangzhou airport, staff assisted loved ones of the 123 passengers and nine crew members aboard the plane, which stopped sending any flight information after dropping a total of 26,000 feet in altitude in just three minutes.

Relatives and friends of those onboard endured a grim wait 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 Xi, 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.

Flight tracking website FlightRadar24 showed the plane sharply dropped from an altitude of 29,100 feet to 7,850 feet in just over a minute.

After a brief upswing, it plunged to 3,225 feet, the tracker said. Despite a huge boom in travel, China has a strong flight safety record.

Chinese media reported that the airline will now ground all its Boeing 737-800 jets. The deadliest Chinese commercial flight accident was a China Northwest Airlines crash in 1994 that killed all 160 people onboard.