China Eastern Airlines Flight 5735 had been carrying 123 passengers and nine crew members from Kunming toward Guangzhou when it nosedived into the mountains in Guangxi on Monday afternoon, according to video footage and witness accounts.
The plane plunged more than 25,000 feet in less than three minutes and crashed into a mountain near Molang village in the city of Wuzhou, sparking a forest fire.
The cause of the crash has perplexed aviation authorities and experts. The weather was fine, the pilots did not raise alarms and the plane did not appear to have broken apart in flight. China has one of the strongest aviation safety records in the world.
Outgoing Federal Aviation Administrator Steve Dickson called the type of Boeing plane that went down “one of the safest aircraft ever produced in commercial operation.”
Hundreds of firefighters and rescue teams were sent to the scene, local officials said. The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board has assembled a team of technical experts from the Federal Aviation Administration, Boeing and engine manufacturer CFM International to join the Chinese investigation into the crash.
Search teams retrieved one of the two black boxes, which contain recorded information from the flight that can help investigators determine the cause of a crash. But the black box sustained serious damage, Chinese aviation administration official Mao Yanfeng said Wednesday.
Passengers on the plane included a young couple who had been taking their toddler daughter to get surgery in Guangzhou, executives from a Guangzhou mining company, a woman who had recently married and a woman returning to Guangzhou after going home for Lunar New Year, local media reported.
More than 500 family members descended on the nearby city of Wuzhou to await word on the fates of relatives who had been onboard, the Chinese state Xinhua News Agency reported.
The plane crash is deadliest in China since 1994, when a China Northwest Airlines flight crashed in Xian after an autopilot malfunction caused the plane to break up in midair, killing 160 people.