By Chris Buckley
Search crews have found the second of two flight recorders from a passenger plane that abruptly plunged to earth in southern China, killing 132 people, officials said Sunday, nearly a week after the disaster.
Flight recorders, which collect crucial information, including the pilots’ communications and data on the plane’s engines and performance, could help explain why China Eastern Airlines Flight 5735 lost more than 20,000 feet in altitude in just over a minute before crashing into a hillside in the region of Guangxi. Chinese authorities confirmed Saturday what had been all but certain: that none of the people aboard the Boeing 737 had survived.
Searchers have been digging into the muddy earth to look for evidence, and a team dug the second recorder from the hillside, after spotting a telltale flash of orange from its case, Zheng Xi, a firefighting official helping to oversee the search, said at a news conference.
“The other parts of the recorder have been badly damaged, but the exterior of the data storage unit appears quite OK,” Zhu Tao, an aviation safety official from the Civil Aviation Administration of China, said at news conference.
Aviation officials and experts have warned that both recorders could be badly damaged from the crash, which would make it more difficult to retrieve their data. Search crews are also trying to recover debris from the plane, which could take weeks, if not longer.
In recent days, workers have recovered parts of the plane’s engines, wings and main landing gear, along with other pieces of wreckage. Officials said they had determined the plane’s main impact point and that most of the debris was concentrated within a radius of 30 yards and a depth of about 20 yards under the ground. But search teams also found a 4-foot-long piece of debris, likely from the plane, more than 6 miles from the main crash site.
The recovery of structural parts could help investigators determine how the plane broke apart by using metallurgical analysis, Mike Daniel, an industry consultant and former accident investigator for the Federal Aviation Administration, said. “They should piece as many parts as possible to try to reconstruct the aircraft,” he said, though he acknowledged that a full reconstruction would be “nearly impossible” given the impact with which the plane hit the ground.
Search teams Wednesday found what officials said was probably the plane’s cockpit voice recorder and sent it to Beijing for analysis. The other flight recorder, presumably the one whose recovery was announced Sunday, is used to store information about the plane’s motion, speed, altitude and mechanical performance.
For days, hundreds of searchers in the isolated hills of Teng County in Guangxi appeared not to have given up on finding survivors, though the chances of finding anyone alive seemed minute. Heavy rains have inundated the area, raising the risk of mudslides. Workers have used pumps to drain the sodden earth.
Live television footage from the area Friday showed workers wearing medical masks and white personal protective suits as they scoured the steep, muddy terrain.
On Friday, several Chinese media outlets mistakenly reported that searchers had found the second flight recorder. Xinhua, the official news agency, later said that was untrue.
The Chinese government regards disasters like the Flight 5735 crash as potential sources of public anger at officials, and it has moved quickly to control the messaging around the crash. State media reports have emphasized statements of concern from China’s top leaders and the quick mobilization of hundreds of firefighters, paramilitary troops and other workers in the search.
In past disasters, such as a high-speed rail accident in 2011, survivors and family members of victims galvanized to protest the government and demand information and redress. This time, though, relatives of the people who were on the flight have been swaddled in official security and oversight and largely kept away from reporters.
Hundreds of searchers at the crash site stood in silence while horns blared for three minutes Sunday afternoon as part of a traditional Chinese ceremony for mourning six days after someone has died.