Final moments of China Eastern 5735

The plane climbed briefly after dropping more than 21,000 feet in just one minute. The pilot might have tried to save it from fate.

Photo from CFP

Photo from CFP

By GAO Jia, LI Kewen


No survivors were found by over 10,000 rescue workers who have searched 25 hectares, and five days after the China Eastern plane crash, all 132 people on board have been confirmed dead. The work of sifting through the wreckage and debris has only just begun. The second black box was found on Saturday.

Flight MU5735 was en route from the southwestern city of Kunming to Guangzhou when it disappeared in the mountains of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. Witnesses told reporters that the plane briefly climbed up before the final plunge, which was corroborated by tracking data showing the plane gaining some altitude after dropping over 21,600 feet (6,600 meters) in just one minute. This might be the pilots' final fight to save it. The cause of the crash remains unknown.

The village where the plane flew past. Photo provided to Jiemian News

CHEN Zhitao was working on a construction site when he heard the explosion on March 21. Villagers often heard rock blasting from a mine nearby, but this one was so loud that the entire house shook. Chen rushed outside to see a plane heading straight down to the ground. It seemed to be trying to pull up but didn’t have enough time. “It all happened very fast, like, in ten seconds,” Chen said. He checked the time. It was 2:27pm.

LI Xiaofang described it as “a huge tire explosion” and was surprised to see a plane flying so low that she could make out the white and red logo and letters on the fuselage. “It was only about as high as the hills,” she said. “I thought it was about to land.”

Another villager heard a helicopter-like sound and saw the plane almost brush a transmission tower on the hilltop. It was flying horizontally, he said, and the right side was visibly lower than the left.

Villagers say the plane almost brushed the transmission tower. Photo provided to Jiemian News

Some felt tremors and heard rumbling sounds. “The building was shaking when the plane flew past. It was lopsided, and there was a clicking sound. I tried to take a video but it went by too fast.” said PENG Xiaoyan, a shop owner. The plane was so low that she thought it was about to crash into the village school.

A farmer who lives near the school claimed he saw glass debris falling off. “Smoke was coming out. There were also sparks from the cockpit,” he said. Other villagers don’t recall the debris but confirmed the smoke. Some noticed the wings were shaking. A few people even got on their bikes to chase the plane.

The flight took off at 1:16 pm and was cruising at 29,100 feet (8,900 meters) when it entered the control area of the destination airport an hour later. At 2:20pm, an air traffic controller, alarmed at the speed at which the plane was losing altitude, tried to contact the pilots several times but didn’t get a reply. The plane disappeared from radar at 2:23pm and was soon confirmed to have crashed near Molang Village, in Guangxi.

The hilly area consists mostly of agricultural land. The valleys are covered with rice paddies, the hills with orange groves and pine trees. Near the crash site, the trees were all flattened or scorched, the ground strewn with debris.

“The smoke was so thick that I couldn’t see anything,” said a villager who was quick to the scene. He found a twisted piece of metal with a partial “China Eastern Airlines" sign, one of the dipsticks from the fuel tank.

Debris has been spotted as far as 10 kilometers away. HUANG Jianyi was spraying pesticides in his field the next day when he noticed a patch had been flattened by the impact of something crashing into the soil. He unearthed a long, pliable piece, studded with rivets.

A screenshot of a video clip showing a piece of debris, one of the largest found so far, was from the fuel stick of the tank. Photo provided to Jiemian News

What happened right before the crash is still unclear, including seemingly basic facts such as how the plane hit the ground. Widely circulated footage captured by the security cameras of a mine nearby shows the plane at a near-vertical angle, which contradicts villagers' account that it was flying horizontally.

The second black box, the flight data recorder, was found on March 27 and appears relatively intact. Investigators expect to retrieve the data without much difficulty, but it will be some time before a preliminary conclusion can be drawn.