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Investigators are trying to determine why a Chinese airline plane crashed


The search is on for the black boxes that could help explain why a Boeing 737 took a sharp dive, crashing into mountains in China yesterday. A hundred and thirty-two people were on board. There are no reports of survivors. The plane went down in a remote area that's only accessible by walking or on a motorcycle. With us is NPR's Beijing correspondent Emily Feng. Emily, what are we learning so far about this crash?

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: People have been closely analyzing the public flight radar data for the plane, which shows that it took off as scheduled from the southwestern city of Kunming, then flew east towards the port city of Guangzhou, its destination. But instead, it ended up in a fireball on the side of a mountain in Guangxi province. The data shows that the plane very quickly lost altitude. It plunged from - it plunged 26,000 feet in just over 90 seconds, which meant that it kind of vertically fell out of the sky per eyewitness accounts who were near the site at the time. And then it hit the side of the mountain and exploded.

MARTÍNEZ: Any clue at all about why this plane went down?

FENG: As you mentioned, authorities are still searching for the black boxes on board. Unfortunately, because it was such a high-impact collision, the plane disintegrated on impact. And so these boxes could have been flung somewhere in the Guangxi jungle. What people are looking at right now is the make of the plane, as well. It's a Boeing 737. It was not very old - just under 7 years old. But Boeing, the company, last year paid a $2.5 billion fine for covering up some glitchy software control that might - maybe had caused two previous crashes on a Boeing 737 MAX a few years earlier. This crash in China does not seem similar, however, because unlike the other two incidents where the pilots were fighting for control over the entire time and flight data showed that the altitudes of these planes was fluctuating, the flight radar data here shows the plane first descended rapidly, pulled up just a little bit and then shot straight down again, hitting the ground straight on, like a missile.

MARTÍNEZ: How are Chinese authorities going forward with an investigation?

FENG: Well, China's leader, Xi Jinping, has ordered an all-out investigation and a search and rescue team. People here are really shocked because crashes like this are very rare. The last one was in 2010. About three-quarters of all domestic flights today in China were canceled, and the investigation, people are warning, could take months. So we have a long wait to figure out what actually happened.

MARTÍNEZ: We mentioned a hundred and thirty-two people were on that flight. Do we know anything about those people that were there?

FENG: Some of their stories are already starting to emerge. There were children on board, people's parents and friends. One of the passenger was a fiance who was returning back to work after visiting his future wife, who was living in Kunming where the flight took off. They were just about to hold their wedding soon. Another passenger was a 16-year-old girl who was flying to Guangzhou because she's applying for a British visa to study in the United Kingdom. The airline regulator here did say there was one person who did not make the flight because they didn't have some of the health paperwork they needed to board, and that person must be feeling very, very lucky today. But again, people are still searching for answers, and people are looking at video now of that very, very sharp descent from 29,000 feet, down to that mountainside in Guangxi because the angle has been very, very strange.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Emily Feng in Beijing. Thank you.

FENG: Thanks, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.

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