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One passenger was a mother, flying to visit the daughter she hadn’t seen for several years. Another was a woman on her way to reunite with her fiancé after months apart.
Awaiting their arrival, those loved ones were instead met with horror after China Eastern Airlines flight 5735, en route from Kunming to Guangzhou, crashed on Monday in the densely forested mountains of southern China.
Rescue teams searched the crash site for a third day Wednesday, but no survivors have been found. Meanwhile, stories of the victims are emerging on state media that paint a portrait of the 132 people on board, as people across the country share messages of grief – their pain made sharper by two years of isolation and separation during the Covid-19 pandemic.
One man told state-run Beijing Youth Daily he and his long-distance fiancé had been together for five years. “This time we hadn’t seen each other in person in four months, we really missed each other,” he said. His fiancé had originally planned to fly to Guangzhou to see him on March 22, but she missed him too much, and changed her flight to an earlier one – MU5735.
Another woman told the news outlet she had been abroad for several years, and hadn’t seen her mother in a long time. Her mom had been on her way to visit, and originally planned to transit through Shanghai – but at the advice of a travel agent, changed her flight to go through Guangzhou.
Among the passengers was a young girl, according to Beijing Youth Daily. A student in Kunming city, she was on her way home to Guangzhou to celebrate her 16th birthday with friends and family. Unbeknown to her, her friends had planned a surprise party. Before boarding the flight, she texted a friend, saying: “When I see you all, I need to give you a proper hug.”
Others on board included young professionals on business trips and newlyweds, according to state media.
Monday’s crash of the Boeing 737-800 plane marks China’s worst air disaster in more than a decade.
The cause of the crash is not yet known, though the discovery of the cockpit voice recorder on Wednesday could provide crucial clues to how the disaster unfolded. It is one of two so-called “black boxes,” with investigators still searching for the flight data recorder.
The plane was “flying normally” before it suddenly began dropping and lost contact with ground control, just over an hour into the flight, said an airline representative at a news conference Tuesday night. Pre-flight examinations showed nothing amiss, and all crew members were healthy and qualified, he added.
The airline has contacted the families of all passengers and crew on board, according to state-run tabloid Global Times. Some relatives gathered in the Guangzhou airport where the flight was supposed to land, waiting in a cordoned-off area for any news of their loved ones. Others are making their way to Wuzhou, near the crash site, with several hotels in the city preparing rooms to receive the families.
An investigation by the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) is ongoing, with the US National Transportation Safety Board and the US Federal Aviation Administration also involved. But it could take months, or even more than a year, before families receive any answers – the final report for the fatal 2010 Henan Airlines crash wasn’t released until almost two years later.
Air crash investigators warned on Tuesday that their probe into the cause of the crash will be “very difficult” due to how severely damaged the plane is.
“Because the investigation has just begun, we are not able to make a clear judgment about the cause of the accident with the information we have so far. The investigation team will spare no effort to collect evidence from all parties and focus on search,” a CAAC official said.
The crash prompted an outpouring of mourning online, with the topic trending for the past few days on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform. Related hashtags have been viewed hundreds of millions of times, with many people urging privacy and respect for the victims’ families.
Images and footage of the crash deepened the nationwide horror – especially a video taken by a mining company near the crash site, showing what appears to be a plane hurtling rapidly toward the forest, nearly vertical in its nosedive.
CNN cannot independently confirm the authenticity of the video, or that the purported aircraft is MU5735 – but the steep decline matches the flight tracking data available, which showed the China Eastern jet plunged more than 25,000 feet (7,600 meters) in under two minutes.
Many Weibo users also pointed out that the heartbreak of the tragedy is exacerbated by difficulties of life during Covid, with many families scattered and unable to see each other. With China currently fighting its biggest Covid wave since Wuhan 2020, the crash felt like a sucker punch.
“They should have been able to go home for a reunion, and travel with their families after the pandemic,” one person wrote in a Weibo post. “(The Guangzhou airport) still has all the people they love most.”
“In the past two years, we’ve missed too many beautiful things because of Covid-19 or other reasons,” another wrote. “For those passengers on the plane, maybe they all had messages on their phones – ‘See you later,’ ‘You’re almost home,’ ‘Finally we don’t need to do long-distance relationship anymore.’ But their lives ended at that moment, while receiving those messages.”