A Boeing 737 airliner with 132 people aboard has crashed into a mountainous area in southern China in what looks set to be the country’s most deadly plane crash for decades.
The aircraft, on a flight from the city of Kunming to Guangzhou, slammed into a thick forest of bamboo on a hillside in Guanxi province. Thick smoke and huge flames could be seen rising on a video posted by the South China Morning Post, but it was unclear whether there was already a fire in the area.
Search parties of medics and soldiers have fanned out through the mountainous terrain to scour for survivors. But China Media Group (CMG) reported that the region was extremely difficult to traverse and has limited connectivity. Families of the crew were said to have begun gathering at the airline’s office in Yunnan Province.
The airline, China Eastern Airlines, has confirmed that according to departure records, no foreign customers were on board the flight.
Tracking data showed the aircraft cruising at 29,100 feet at 2.20 p.m. Some two minutes later it had dropped to just over 9,000 feet and 20 seconds after that to just 3,225 feet. FlightRadar said that indicated a vertical descent of 31,000 feet per minute—or around 350 mph.
Another video circulating on social media, the authenticity of which The Daily Beast could not immediately verify, appeared to show the aircraft streaking into the ground in a nose-down vertical position. U.S. government-backed Radio Free Asia reported that the video was captured by CCTV at a mine.
“Can confirm the plane has crashed,” China Eastern Airlines said in a statement announcing a special hotline for passengers’ relatives.
Following the horrific crash, Boeing’s shares dropped approximately 8 percent and shares in China Eastern Airlines likewise plummeted 6.5 percent.
Flight MU5735 left the southwestern city of Kunming at 1:11 p.m. and had been due to land at Guanzhou at 3:05 p.m. According to data from FlightRadar24, the six-year-old Boeing 737-800 was last tracked at 2:22 p.m.
The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) said the aircraft, with 123 passengers and nine crew aboard, had lost contact over the city of Wuzhou. Earlier reports from Chinese state media had said there were 133 people on board.
Chinese President Xi Jinping expressed his shock at the news and called for an “all-out effort” in the rescue operation. But according to a firefighting official quoted by the state-run People’s Daily newspaper, there was no sign of life among the debris.
Once known as a black spot for plane crashes, China has cleaned up its act in recent years, investing in a young modern fleet of aircraft and strict safety controls.
China’s last fatal airliner accident is thought to have been in 2010, when an an Embraer E-190 jet flown by Henan Airlines crashed on approach to Yichun airport in low visibility. Forty-four of 96 people aboard were killed.
Mainland China’s most deadly crash was in June 1994, when a Tupolev TU-154 broke up in mid-flight, killing all 160 people aboard.
Boeing started making the 737-800, a narrow-bodied single-aisle commuter plane, in the mid-1990s and delivered 5,200 to airlines around the world before it was phased out two years ago. China Eastern has more than 100 of the planes, which it has now grounded while Monday's crash is investigated.