Plane parts, human remains found as search area expanded for crashed China Eastern plane

Rescue workers comb through the site of where China Eastern Flight MU5375 crashed, near Wuzhou, China, on March 24, 2022. PHOTO: AFP
First responders had to trek several kilometres into the mountains, villagers said. ST PHOTO: ELIZABETH LAW
First responders had to trek several kilometres into the mountains, villagers said. ST PHOTO: ELIZABETH LAW
Rescue efforts had been hampered by a torrential downpour in the remote mountainside in Guangxi on March 24, 2022. ST PHOTO: ELIZABETH LAW
Efforts had been hampered by a torrential downpour in the area and across much of southern China. ST PHOTO: ELIZABETH LAW

TENG COUNTY, GUANGXI - Rescue workers have expanded their search area where a China Eastern plane crashed on Monday (March 21) in Teng County in southern Guangxi, and found aircraft parts more than 10km away.

The search radius has grown about 1½ times from the day before, and 183 plane parts, including that of an engine, as well as the belongings of 21 passengers have been found, said Mr Zheng Xi, head of the Guangxi Firefighting Corps.

Human remains have also been retrieved, he told journalists on Thursday.

But most of the wreckage was found within a 30m radius of where the plane crashed into a valley surrounded by steep hills in a remote mountainous area.

Torrential rains have complicated search efforts, especially since the eastern side of the search area is virgin forest. 

“There are a lot of unknowns in the foliage, including poisonous snakes and animals, so we have to be extremely careful,” Mr Zheng told the media in Wuzhou, a prefecture-level city close to the crash site where rescuers and passengers’ family members have been staying. 

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Rescuers have also been scouring the rugged terrain for the remaining flight data recorder of China Eastern Flight MU5735.

One of two black boxes on the Boeing 737-800, the audio recorder, was found on Wednesday and transported to Beijing to be analysed. 

State media footage showed firefighters and military personnel in raincoats examining an orange canister covered in mud. 

“Is this it? Can we have someone verify?” a voice could be heard saying in the background. 

The audio recorder that was found was so badly damaged that investigators needed several hours to verify whether it was used to record sound or data. PHOTO: XINHUA

Officials initially said the recorder had been so badly damaged that they needed several hours to verify which of the two recorders had been found. 

The black boxes are meant to be crash-proof and virtually indestructible, said Mr Mao Yanfeng, head of the Civil Aviation Accident Investigation Centre.

The two black boxes could help investigators piece together why Flight MU5735 plunged from the sky with 132 people on board on Monday, while en route from Kunming to Guangzhou.

A cut-off from a nearby highway had to be hastily opened to give rescuers better access to the crash site, just 2km off the highway. 

But on the first day, first responders had to trek several kilometres into the mountains, villagers said. 

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Family members were also seen at Langnan township, having to be supported by others.

Volunteers hit stalled media vehicles with umbrellas in a bid to stop reporters from recording scenes.
The entrance into the crash site is a narrow single-lane village called Molang. Initially, villagers on motorcycles had to take rescuers to the site.

“They knew the exact location but the mountain roads are complicated and if they take a wrong turn, they’ll end up halfway across the other side of the mountain,” a volunteer driver from Teng County, who gave his surname as Sun, told The Straits Times. 

Rescue operations are being run out of Molang village, a tiny hamlet in Teng County. ST PHOTO: ELIZABETH LAW

Along the way, ST saw workers digging to widen the road.

A local from Molang village, known only as Mr Si, told ST that the area where the plane crashed into is mainly farmland and does not have any houses around it.

He was chatting with his neighbours on Monday when they heard a loud explosion and saw thick smoke.

“We could smell fuel... It was a very strong stench of fuel. It was close to an hour before the smell went away,” said Mr Si. “We didn’t even know what it was but I guessed it was a plane that crashed.” 

Fragments of wreckage of the China Eastern passenger jet in Teng County, Wuzhou city, China, on March 21, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

United States Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the Chinese authorities had invited the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to take part in the investigation of the crash.

NTSB, however, later said it had not yet determined if investigators would travel to China in light of visa and quarantine requirements. 

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