At least one airline had questioned the safety of night-time landings at the relatively new airport in north-east China where a passenger jet crashed and burned while trying to land at night on a fog-shrouded runway, killing 42 people and injuring 54, it was revealed today.
The Henan Airlines plane crashed in a grassy area near Lindu airport in the Heilongjiang province city of Yichun yesterday.
Survivors among the 96 passengers and crew described scenes of horror, with luggage falling down and escapes through flames and broken holes in the fuselage.
It was China’s first major commercial air disaster in nearly six years. The plane’s two black boxes were recovered today, the official Xinhua News Agency reported, but the cause of the accident is still not known.
Vice Prime Minister Zhang Dejiang arrived at the crash site today to help set up an investigation team.
State television reported that a preliminary investigation found that the plane did not catch fire or explode in the air and there were no signs of sabotage.
The newly built airport in Yichun sits in a forested valley and has operated for a year.
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 branch which was posted online.
An employee with the branch’s technical office confirmed the notice’s authenticity, saying 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, although the charred tail was still largely intact.
China Central Television said eight of the victims were found 65ft to 100ft (20m to 30m) from the plane’s wreckage in a muddy field.
Xinhua 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 survivor told Xinhua that there was strong turbulence just after the announcement that the plane was about to land.
“There were four or five bad turbulence (jolts) and luggage in the overhead bin was raining down,” he was quoted as saying. “Everyone panicked. Those sitting in the back began rushing to the front of the cabin.
“There was smog, which I knew was toxic. I held my breath and ran until I saw a burning hole on one side of the cabin. I crawled out and ran at least 100 metres to ensure I was safe.”
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.
Five of those on board were children, the Civil Aviation Administration of China said, and at least one, an eight-year-old boy, survived. Ji Yifan told Xinhua he was saved by another passenger.
“Someone dragged me to the emergency exit door and threw me out before I realised what was going on,” the boy 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 from his hospital bed, where he had bruises on his face, neck and arms.
The Brazilian-made Embraer E-190 jet had taken off from Heilongjiang’s capital of Harbin shortly before 9pm (1pm Irish time) and crashed a little over an hour later while arriving at Yichun, a city of about 1 million people 100 miles (160km) from the Russian border.
Eighteen officials from China’s Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security and various provincial branches were on the flight, en route to a meeting in Yichun, Xinhua said. It said Vice Minister Sun Baoshu was in a critical condition with broken bones and head injuries.
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 co-operate 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 north-east 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 suspended all its flights today, and many other regional Chinese airlines flying shorter routes have struggled in the past few years, losing passengers to high-speed railway 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 a China Eastern plane plunged into a lake in northern China, killing all 53 on board and two on the ground.