Chinese passenger plane with 132 aboard crashes; casualties unknown

Smoke rises from a fire after a China Eastern Airlines passenger plane carrying 132 people crashed near Wuzhou city in the Guangxi region. Photo: PTI

Beijing: A Chinese passenger plane with 132 people on board crashed in the southern Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region on Monday, the regional emergency management department said, in the worst air disaster in over a decade in the country.

The Boeing 737 aircraft of China Eastern Airlines, which flew from Kunming to Guangzhou, crashed in Tengxian County in the city of Wuzhou, causing a mountain fire, the department was quoted as saying by the state-run Xinhua news agency.

Hopes to find the survivors in the thick forests in the mountainous region receded as the night fell making efforts by scores of rescuers difficult.

State television showed teams of rescuers armed with search lights scurrying through the sprawling area in the forests on the remote mountainous region as darkness enveloped the forest region.

The 132 people included 123 passengers and nine crew members, the Civil Aviation Administration of China said on its website.

While the airline has announced that no foreigners were on board, families of some crew members from the crashed Eastern Airlines flight have arrived in the company's branch office in Yunnan Province and they were being assisted to work on follow-up issues, state-run CGTN-TV reported.

A "shocked" Chinese President Xi Jinping ordered "swift action to identify the cause of the crash and to strengthen the safety overhaul of the civil aviation sector to ensure the absolute safety of the sector and people's lives, Xinhua reported.

The People's Liberation Army (PLA) has promptly mobilized rescue forces in the city of Wuzhou to the crash site of the China Eastern Airlines flight, the Southern Theater Command said on Monday.

According to the official media, the plane sharply descended onto the mountainous area and crashed.

Footage shot by locals in their phones showed the area of the crash was engulfed by massive mountainous fire with explosions heard in the background.

There is no official word here yet on the number of casualties or survivors except speculation about the unlikelihood of survivors.  

The crash shattered China's airlines record of over 100 million continuous hours of safe flight as of February 19.

The last domestic fatal air accident was in 2010, when an Embraer passenger plane crashed in Yichun, Heilongjiang province, killing 42 people.

As soon as the plane crashed in the forest area, Chinese officials rushed hundreds of fire brigades as well as rescue teams to find the survivors before the night fell.

The fire has been put out and the rescue operation is underway, said Chen Jie, an official with the regional emergency management department.

In his instructions issued soon after the incident, President Xi said he was shocked to learn about the incident involving China Eastern Airlines flight MU5735 from Kunming to Guangzhou.

He ordered the immediate launch of emergency response, all-out search and rescue efforts and proper settlement of the aftermath, Xinhua reported.

He said swift action should be taken to identify the cause of the crash and to strengthen the safety overhaul of the civil aviation sector to ensure the absolute safety of the sector and people's lives.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang urged efforts to console the families of the victims and provide them with assistance, release accurate information in a timely manner, conduct a serious probe into the incident, and take strong measures to strengthen the safety of civil aviation.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FFA) said via Twitter that it was ready to assist in investigation efforts if asked.

Boeing China said it was aware of the media reports of the plane crash and is working to gather more information.

Meanwhile, China Eastern Airlines - one of China's three major air carriers - has grounded its all Boeing 737-800 after the crash on Monday, company officials said.

The airline also made its website have a black-and-white homepage after the crash as it prepared to announce the casualties.

According to news portal The Paper, a staff member at Guangzhou's Baiyun International Airport said that flight MU5735 from Kunming to Guangzhou has not arrived at its destined time, the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported.

The domestic flight was scheduled to take off from Kunming at 1.10 pm (local time) and arrive at Guangzhou at 2.52 pm (local time) and is now marked out of reach on Baiyun airport's app.

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