WUZHOU, China – Dirt-stained wallets. Bank cards. Official identity cards. Sharp reminders of the 132 lives believed to have been lost by rescuers who searched a remote Chinese mountain slope on Tuesday in search of the wreckage of a China Eastern plane that inexplicably fell from the sky the day before and exploded in a huge fireball.

No survivors were found among the 123 passengers and nine crew members. Videos published by China’s state media show small pieces of a Boeing 737-800 scattered over a wide forest area, some in green fields, others in burned-out areas with damp earth, exposed after tree fires. Each piece of rubbish has a number next to it, the larger ones are marked with police tape.

As family members gathered at the airports of destination and departure, it remained a mystery what caused the plane to fall from the sky shortly before it began descending to the southern Chinese metropolis of Guangzhou. The official Xinhua news agency said the search for black boxes containing flight data and dictaphones in the cockpit would be difficult and would include drones and manual search.

The accident left a deep pit on the hillside, Xinhua reported, citing rescuers. Chen Weihao, who saw the plane crash while working on the farm, told the news agency that it had hit a gorge in a mountain where no one lived.

“The plane looked whole when it dived. A few seconds later it crashed,” Chen said.

Flight 5735 China Eastern crashed outside the city of Wuzhou in the Guangxi region while flying from Kunming, the capital of the southwestern province of Yunnan, to Guangzhou, an industrial hub near Hong Kong on China’s southeast coast. He lit a fire large enough to be seen in NASA satellite imagery before firefighters were able to put it out.

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There were no foreigners on board the lost flight, the Foreign Ministry said, citing a preliminary inspection.

Dinglong Culture, a Guangzhou-based mining and television and film company, said in a statement at the Shenzhen Stock Exchange that its chief financial officer, Fang Fang, was a passenger. Zhongxinghua, an accounting firm used by Dinglong, said two of its employees were also on the flight.

The crash site is surrounded on three sides by mountains and is only accessible on foot and by motorcycle on a steep dirt road in the semi-tropical region of Guangxi, famous for some of China’s most spectacular landscapes.

It rained on Tuesday afternoon as excavators dug a path to facilitate access, state-run CCTV reported. The steepness of the slope made it difficult to place heavy equipment.

An operational base with rescue vehicles, ambulances and an emergency power supply vehicle parked in a tight space was set up near the crash site. Soldiers and rescuers combed the scorched site of the disaster and the surrounding dense vegetation.

Police restricted access, checking every car entering Molang, a village near the crash site. Five people with swollen eyes left the village, got in the car and drove off. According to observers, they are relatives of the passengers.

Family members gathered at Kunming and Guangzhou airports. People wrapped in pink blankets and burned in massage chairs could be seen in the lounge area for travelers in the basement of a friend in Kunming. Workers rolled on mattresses and brought food in packages. The guard barred the AP journalist from entering, saying “interviews are not accepted.”

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In Guangzhou, relatives were taken to a reception center staffed in full protective gear to protect against the coronavirus.

At least five hotels with more than 700 rooms have been confiscated in Teng County of Wuzhou for family members, Chinese media reported.

Workers in protective suits set up a registration desk and conducted tests on COVID-19 at the entrance to a hotel outside Molanga. The sign read: “The hotel is requisitioned for emergency use on March 21.” In another hotel, a group of women, some in vests with Red Cross insignia, checked in at a hotel counter set outside.

The country’s first fatal plane crash in more than a decade has dominated China’s news and social media. World leaders, including Britain’s Boris Johnson, India’s Narendra Modi and Canada’s Justin Trudeau have posted condolences on Twitter.

Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun said the company was deeply saddened by the news and offered the full support of its technical experts to help with the investigation.

“We at Boeing all think about passengers and crew … as well as their families and loved ones,” he wrote in a statement to Boeing staff.

The plane was about an hour later in flight at an altitude of 29,000 feet when it entered a steep rapid dive around 2:20 p.m., according to data from FlightRadar24.com. The plane plunged to an altitude of 7,400 feet before briefly regaining an altitude of about 1,200 feet and then diving again. The plane stopped transmitting data 96 seconds after the start of the dive.

The aircraft was handed over to the airline in June 2015 and has been flying for more than six years.

Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport, where the flight was headed, is one of China’s major aviation hubs. This is the home base for China Southern Airlines. As the pandemic overturned air travel, it flew past Beijing and Atlanta to claim the title of the world’s busiest airport in 2020 – the last year for which annual data is available – serving more than 43 million passengers.

Guangzhou is the capital of Guangdong Province, where there are export factories producing smartphones, toys, furniture and other goods. In the area of ​​Auto City there are joint ventures Toyota, Nissan and others. Kunming, the city of departure, located 680 miles to the west, is the capital of Yunnan Province, an agricultural, mining and tourist center bordering Southeast Asia.

China Eastern, headquartered in Shanghai, has suspended all its 737-800, the Chinese Ministry of Transportation said. Aviation experts have said it is unusual to ground an entire fleet of aircraft if there is no evidence of a problem with the model.

The airline is one of China’s three largest carriers with more than 600 aircraft, including 109 Boeing 737-800s. Grounding could further disrupt domestic air travel, which has already been curtailed due to the largest COVID-19 outbreak in China since its initial peak in early 2020.

The Boeing 737-800 has been flying since 1998 and has an excellent safety record, said Hassan Shahidi, president of the Flight Safety Foundation. This is an earlier model than the 737 Max, which was discontinued worldwide nearly two years after the fatal crashes in 2018 and 2019.

Before Monday, the last fatal crash of a Chinese airliner occurred in August 2010, when an Embraer ERJ 190-100 plane of Henan Airlines crashed into the ground near the runway in the northeastern city of Yichun and caught fire. There were 96 people on it, 44 of them died. Investigators blamed the pilot for the mistake.

Kang reported from Kunming, China. Associated Press researcher Yu Bin and news assistant Caroline Chen in Beijing, researcher Xi Chen in Shanghai, video producer Olivia Zhang from Wuzhou, China, writer Adam Shrek in Bangkok and airline writer David Koenig from Dallas.

Copyright © 2022, Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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