China plane crash: cockpit voice recorder analysed for clues as first victims found

The cockpit voice recorder from a plane which crashed into a Chinese mountainside with 132 people onboard is being analysed in Beijing, as the recovery mission confirms it has found human remains at the site.

The China Eastern Airlines flight crashed on Monday afternoon, after plunging from more than 6,000m (20,000ft). The cause of the crash is not known, and investigators have said determining it could prove difficult given the circumstances. The plane crashed with such force that much of it disintegrated on impact, and the recovered black box was “badly damaged”. A second black box, which records flight data, has not yet been found.

Zhu Tao, an official at the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), said the storage units of the recovered recorder were damaged but “relatively complete” and had been sent to a Beijing institute for decoding.

Rescue workers search for the black boxes at a plane crash site in Tengxian county.
Rescue workers search for the black boxes at a plane crash site in Tengxian county. Photograph: Zhou Hua/AP

More than 300 rescue workers remain at the crash site in a remote area near Wuzhou in Teng County, Guangxi province. Work was suspended briefly on Wednesday due to poor weather, but an evening briefing revealed some human remains had been located.

Some details of passengers have begun to emerge in Chinese state media. In China Youth Daily, a man who gave the pseudonym Wang Baiyang said his 26-year-old sister, her husband and their 18-month old daughter were onboard and that it had been their first ever flight. They were flying to Guangazhou for medical treatment for the child, and had originally been scheduled on an earlier flight but it was cancelled.

“For the past two days, I felt like I had a dream, and I always felt that when I woke up the next day, my sister would call me,” he said. “I didn’t think it was real at all, first my grandfather died, and then I heard the news of the flight, and I just froze there and tried to reach my sister through the phone.”

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Wang said his sister, Gu Hanyu, sent the family a video before the flight of her daughter jumping around the lounge and playing with her mask, and giggling. Gu was born deaf, he said, and had met her husband Guo Zengqiang on a blind date. They married in February 2020 at a simple ceremony.

“Who would have thought that just after they found a doctor who can cure the child’s disease, this disease will not have to be treated,” said Wang. “Life-saving flights become fatal flights. It was their first and last flight.”

A retiree surnamed Zhang, from Shenzhen, visited the crash site earlier and told Reuters his nephew was onboard.

“I hope the country can thoroughly investigate this matter and find out whether it was the manufacturer’s fault or it was a maintenance problem,” Zhang said, his eyes filling with tears.

Grieving relatives arrive at the site.
Grieving relatives arrive at the site. Photograph: Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images

The search for the second flight recorder continues, with investigators hoping the information could give answers to why the plane, which had passed safety checks prior to taking off, crashed during the cruising phase of the flight.Advertisement

The plane was a six-year-old Boeing 737-89P, according to flight data trackers. The Boeing 737-800s are among the most common passenger planes in the world, and different to the 737 Max, which was grounded worldwide after two fatal crashes in 2018 and 2019.

In apparent answer to speculation the crash could be due to pilot activity, Sun Shiying, chairman of the airline’s Yunnan branch, told reporters on Wednesday the three pilots on board were in good health and “had good performance and had maintained harmonious relationships with their families”.

The investigation into the worst air disaster in China for over a decade is being led by local authorities, however American investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) have been invited to take part because the plane was made in the US. However it has not yet confirmed if those investigators can travel to China because of visa and quarantine requirements.

“We are working with the Department of State to address those issues with the Chinese government before any travel will be determined,” the NTSB said.

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