Beijing: Aviation officials at a relatively new airport in northeast China searched through debris Wednesday for clues to why a passenger jet crashed and burned while trying to land on a fog-shrouded runway, killing 42 people and injuring 54 others.
The Henan Airlines plane with 91 passengers and five crew crashed late Tuesday in a grassy area near the Lindu airport on the outskirts of Yichun. Five of those onboard were children, the Civil Aviation Administration of China said, and at least one, an 8-year-old boy, survived.
It was China’s first major commercial air disaster in nearly six years. The plane’s black box was recovered, Xinhua reported, but it is still not known what caused the accident.
The newly built Yichun airport sits in a forested valley and has operated for a year, and concerns about the safety of night landings there had been raised by at least one major airline.
China Southern Airlines decided last August to avoid night flights in and out of Yichun, switching its daily flight from Harbin to the daytime. A technical notice cited concerns about the airport’s surrounding terrain, runway lighting and wind and weather conditions.
“Principally there should be no night flights at Yichun airport,” said the notice from China Southern’s Heilongjiang province branch that was posted online. An employee with the branch’s technical office confirmed the notice’s authenticity. He declined to give his name because he was not authorized to talk to the media, but said China Southern decided to cancel night flights at Yichun “for safety concerns. We’re cautious.”
The crash and fire were so severe that little of the fuselage remained, though the charred tail was still largely intact. China Central Television said eight of the victims were found 65 to 100 feet (20 to 30 meters) from the plane’s wreckage in a muddy field.
The official Xinhua News Agency said officials had earlier reported 43 dead because one body was torn apart in the crash and had been counted as two. It said the pilot, Qi Quanjun, survived the crash but was badly hurt and cannot speak.
One of the dead was a Chinese with a foreign passport, according to Xinhua, but it did not give the nationality. It also said a passenger from Taiwan was hurt.
The Brazilian-made Embraer E-190 jet had taken off from Heilongjiang’s capital of Harbin shortly before 9 pm and crashed a little more than an hour later while arriving at Yichun, a city of about 1 million people 100 miles (160 kilometers) from the Russian border.
A middle-age man who survived the crash told China Central Television there was bad turbulence as the plane descended, then several big jolts that caused the luggage to come crashing from the overhead bins.
“After we stopped, the people in the back were panicking and rushed to the front,” the unidentified man, who had no visible injuries, said in an interview from a hospital bed. “We were trying to open the (emergency exits) but they wouldn’t open. Then the smoke came in ... within two or three minutes or even a minute, we couldn’t breathe. I knew something bad was going to happen.”
The man said he and a few others escaped from a hole in the wall of the cabin near the first row of seats, then ran from the burning wreckage.
Another survivor was Ji Yifan, an 8-year-old boy, who told Xinhua he was saved by another passnger.
“Someone dragged me to the emergency exit door and threw me out before I realized what was going on,” he was quoted as saying.
Ji told Xinhua that the evacuation slide, which was on fire, broke as he was sliding down. “I fell to the ground. Again someone dragged me aside,” he said. He was speaking from his hospital bed, where he had bruises on his face, neck and arms.
Eighteen officials from China’s ministry of human resources and social security and various provincial branches were on the flight, headed to a meeting in Yichun, Xinhua said. It said vice minister Sun Baoshu was in critical condition with broken bones and head injuries.
Wang Xuemei, vice mayor of Yichun, told CCTV that three of the 54 injured were in critical condition but he gave no details. The Yichun city Communist Party published an online list of victims with 42 names. They ranged in age from 12, a girl, to 55.
A statement in Chinese on Embraer’s website said the company had sent officials to the crash scene to cooperate with the investigation.
“Embraer extends its profound condolences and wishes for recovery to the families and friends of those lost or injured in the accident,” it said.
Henan Airlines is based in the central Chinese province of the same name and flies smaller regional jets, mainly on routes in north and northeast China. Previously known as Kunpeng Airlines, the carrier was relaunched as Henan Airlines earlier this year. It launched the Yichun-Harbin service this year.
Henan Airlines, which on Wednesday suspended all its flights, and many other regional Chinese airlines flying shorter routes have struggled in the past few years, losing passengers to high-speed railroad lines that China has aggressively expanded.
Full-tilt expansion of Chinese air traffic in the 1990s led to a series of crashes that gave China the reputation of being unsafe. The poor record prompted the government to improve safety drastically, from airlines to new air traffic management systems at airports.
The last major passenger jet crash in China was in November 2004, when an China Eastern airplane plunged into a lake in northern China, killing all 53 on board and two on the ground.