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China Eastern Airlines crashes in mountains with 132 on board, no sign of survivors

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A China Eastern Airlines (600115.SS) Boeing 737-800 with 132 people on board crashed in mountains in southern China on a domestic flight on Monday after a sudden descent from cruising altitude. Media said there were no signs of survivors.

The airline said it deeply mourned the loss of passengers and crew, without specifying how many people had been killed.

Chinese media showed brief highway video footage from a vehicle’s dashcam apparently showing a jet diving to the ground behind trees at an angle of about 35 degrees off vertical. Reuters could not immediately verify the footage.

The plane was en route from the southwestern city of Kunming, capital of Yunnan province, to Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong, bordering Hong Kong, when it crashed.

China Eastern said the cause of the crash, in which the plane descended at 31,000 feet a minute according to flight tracking website FlightRadar24, was under investigation.

The airline said it had provided a hotline for relatives of those on board and sent a working group to the site. There were no foreigners on the flight, Chinese state television reported, citing China Eastern.

Media cited a rescue official as saying the plane had disintegrated and caused a fire destroying bamboo trees. The People’s Daily quoted a provincial firefighting department official as saying there was no sign of life among the debris.

State media showed a piece of the plane on a scarred, earthen hillside. There was no sign of a fire or personal belongings.

According to Reuters, the aircraft, with 123 passengers and nine crew on board, lost contact over the city of Wuzhou, China’s Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) and the airline said.

The flight left Kunming at 1:11 p.m. (0511 GMT), FlightRadar24 data showed, and had been due to land in Guangzhou at 3:05 p.m. (0705 GMT).

The plane, which Flightradar24 said was six years old, had been cruising at 29,100 feet at 0620 GMT. Just over two minutes and 15 seconds later, data showed it had descended to 9,075 feet.

Twenty seconds later, its last tracked altitude was 3,225 feet.

Crashes during the cruise phase of flights are relatively rare even though this phase accounts for the majority of flight time. Boeing said last year only 13% of fatal commercial accidents globally between 2011 and 2020 occurred during the cruise phase, whereas 28% occurred on final approach and 26% on landing.

“Usually the plane is on auto-pilot during cruise stage. So it is very hard to fathom what happened,” said Li Xiaojin, a Chinese aviation expert.

Online weather data showed partly cloudy conditions with good visibility in Wuzhou at the time of the crash.

President Xi Jinping called for investigators to determine the cause of the crash as soon as possible, state broadcaster CCTV reported.

A Boeing spokesperson said: “We are aware of the initial media reports and are working to gather more information.”

Shares of Boeing Co (BA.N) were down 6.4% at $180.44 in premarket trade.

Shares in China Eastern Airlines in Hong Kong closed down 6.5% after news of the crash emerged, while its U.S.-listed shares slumped 17% in premarket trading.

China Eastern grounded its fleet of 737-800 planes after the crash, state media reported. China Eastern has 109 of the aircraft in its fleet, according to FlightRadar24.

According to Aviation Safety Network, China’s last fatal jet accident was in 2010, when 44 of 96 people on board were killed when an Embraer E-190 regional jet flown by Henan Airlines crashed on approach to Yichun airport.

In 1994 a China Northwest Airlines Tupolev Tu-154 flying from Xian to Guangzhou crashed, killing all 160 on board in China’s worst-ever air disaster, according to Aviation Safety Network.

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