WUZHOU, China (AP) — Investigators have found what they believe to be the cockpit voice recorder in the wreckage of a China Eastern flight that crashed in the country's south with 132 people on board, a Chinese aviation official said Wednesday.
The outer casing of one of the two “black boxes" aboard the plane and its storage component both suffered damage, but the unit is “relatively intact," Zhu Tao, director of the Office of Aviation Safety at the Civil Aviation Authority of China, told reporters at a briefing.
The recorder will be sent to Beijing for decoding and analysis, Zhu said. How long that will take depends on the degree of damage the unit suffered, he said.
“This will provide important evidence as to the cause of the accident," he said. Investigators will next “continue to go all-out to find the flight data recorder to provide even more comprehensive data support to reconstruct the entire incident," he said.
Images released earlier by state broadcaster CCTV showed workers placing a bright orange, mud-caked cylinder into a labeled, clear plastic, zip-close bag.
Recovering the so-called black boxes — they are usually painted orange for visibility — is considered key to figuring out what caused the crash. They're typically located in the tail area, where they’re less likely to be damaged in a crash.
The search for clues into why the jetliner dove suddenly and crashed into a mountain in southern China on Monday afternoon had to be temporarily suspended earlier Wednesday as rain slickened the debris field and filled the red-dirt gash formed by the plane’s fiery impact.
Wallets and identity and bank cards have been found and human remains were also recovered Wednesday, Zheng Xi, head of the fire and rescue service in the Guangxi autonomous region where the plane crashed, told reporters.
“The area is overgrown with weeds and the terrain is steep," Zheng said.
“With the rain, visibility has been poor, introducing a certain degree of difficulty into the rescue operation," he said.
Searchers are using hand tools, including metal detectors, along with drones and sniffer dogs under rainy conditions to comb the heavily forested slopes. Crews also worked to pump water from the pit created when the plane hit the ground, but their efforts were suspended around midmorning because small landslides were possible on the steep, slick slopes.
The flight data recorder captures information about the plane’s airspeed, altitude, direction up or down, pilot actions, and performance of all key systems.
Cockpit voice recorders generally gather sound from pilots’ headsets and an overhead microphone. They can capture voices, audio alerts and background sounds from the engine or even switches being moved.
“It’s invaluable information, especially since this crew apparently failed to communicate (with air traffic controllers) on their way down,” said John Goglia, a former member of the U.S. crash investigator, the National Transportation Safety Board. “I hope they get good voice on that recorder, because that will tell us exactly what was going on in the cockpit.”
Officials said members of the air crew were healthy, the aircraft had a clean maintenance record, the weather had been good during the flight and the pilots had been in regular communication with air traffic controllers prior to going into a dive.
Relatives of passengers began arriving Wednesday at the gate to Lu village just outside the crash zone, where they, along with reporters on the scene, were stopped by police and officials who used opened umbrellas to block the view beyond.
One woman was overheard saying her husband, the father of their two children, was on board the flight.
“I'm just going in there to take a look. Am I breaking the law?" she said. The woman and a companion were then escorted away and reporters told to stop filming.
Another man, who gave just his surname, Ding, said his sister-in-law was on the plane. He said he hoped to visit the site but had been told little by the authorities.
“We’re just coming here to have a look," said Ding, adding, “My heart sank all of a sudden," upon hearing about the crash. He too was escorted away.
China Eastern Flight 5735 was carrying 123 passengers and nine crew from Kunming in Yunnan province to Guangzhou, an industrial center on China’s southeastern coast, when it crashed Monday afternoon outside the city of Wuzhou in the Guangxi region. All 132 people on board are presumed killed.
Investigators say it is too early to speculate on the cause. The plane went into an unexplained dive an hour after departure and stopped transmitting data 96 seconds into the fall.
An air-traffic controller tried to contact the pilots several times after seeing the plane’s altitude drop sharply, but got no reply, Tao said on Tuesday.
China Eastern is headquartered in Shanghai and is one of China’s three largest carriers with more than 600 planes, including 109 Boeing 737-800s. China's Transport Ministry said China Eastern has grounded all of its 737-800s, a move that could further disrupt domestic air travel already curtailed because of the largest COVID-19 outbreak in China since the initial peak in early 2020.
The grounding order did not imply any mechanical problems with the fleet, but was an “act of responsibility toward passengers," the chairman of China Eastern's Yunnan province subsidiary said at Wednesday's news conference.
The Boeing 737-800 has been flying since 1998 and has a well-established safety record. It is an earlier model than the 737 Max, which was grounded worldwide for nearly two years after deadly crashes in 2018 and 2019.
Monday's crash was China's worst in more than a decade. In August 2010, an Embraer ERJ 190-100 operated by Henan Airlines hit the ground short of the runway in the northeastern city of Yichun and caught fire. It carried 96 people and 44 of them died. Investigators blamed pilot error.
Moritsugu reported from Beijing. Associated Press researcher Yu Bing and news assistant Caroline Chen in Beijing; researcher Chen Si in Shanghai; video producer Olivia Zhang in Wuzhou, China; and airlines reporter David Koenig in Dallas contributed to this report.