Search crews have found the second of two flight recorders from a passenger plane that abruptly plunged to earth in southern China, killing 132 people, officials said on Sunday, nearly a week after the disaster.
Flight recorders, which collect crucial information, including the pilots’ communications and data on the plane’s engines and performance, could help explain why China Eastern Airlines Flight 5735 lost more than 20,000 feet in altitude in just over a minute before crashing into a hillside in the region of Guangxi. Chinese authorities confirmed on Saturday what had been all but certain: that none of the people aboard the Boeing 737 had survived.
A brief bulletin from Chinese state television said the second recorder had been found, according to the command post for the search effort.
“Experts confirmed that this was the second black box,” the report said. Although called “black boxes,” flight recorders are usually brightly colored. The report said that any other details would be released at a news conference later Sunday.
Aviation officials and experts have warned that both recorders could be badly damaged from the crash, which would make it more difficult to retrieve their data. Search crews are also trying to recover debris from the plane, which could take weeks, if not longer.
In recent days, workers have recovered parts of the plane’s engines, wings and main landing gear, along with other pieces of wreckage. Officials said they had determined the plane’s main impact point and that most of the debris was concentrated within a radius of 30 yards and a depth of about 20 yards under the ground. But search teams also found a four-foot-long piece of debris, likely from the plane, more than six miles from the main crash site.
The recovery of structural parts could help investigators determine how the plane broke apart by using metallurgical analysis, Mike Daniel, an industry consultant and former accident investigator for the Federal Aviation Administration, said in an interview. “They should piece as many parts as possible to try to reconstruct the aircraft,” he said, though he acknowledged that this would be “nearly impossible” given the impact with which the plane hit the ground.
Search teams on Wednesday found what officials said was probably the plane’s cockpit voice recorder and sent it to Beijing for analysis. The other flight recorder, presumably the one whose recovery was announced on Sunday, is used to store information about the plane’s mechanical performance and movements.
“We can’t rule out the possibility that the storage unit has been damaged,” Zhu Tao, a safety official with the Civil Aviation Administration of China, told reporters when the first recorder was found.
For days, hundreds of searchers in the isolated hills of Teng County in Guangxi appeared not to have given up on finding survivors, though the chances of finding anyone alive seemed minute. Heavy rains have inundated the area, raising the risk of mudslides. Workers have used pumps to drain the sodden earth.
Live television footage from the area on Friday showed workers wearing medical masks and white personal protective suits as they scoured the steep, muddy terrain.
On Friday, several Chinese media outlets mistakenly reported that searchers had found the second flight recorder. Xinhua, the official news agency, later said that was untrue. Search crews had found telltale pieces of orange-colored fragments that might be from the recorder, and they were scanning the ground inch by inch to find the recorder, Chinese television news reported.
The Chinese government regards disasters like the Flight 5735 crash as potential sources of public anger at officials, and it has moved quickly to control the messaging around the crash. State media reports have emphasized statements of concern from China’s top leaders and the quick mobilization of hundreds of firefighters, paramilitary troops and other workers in the search.
In past disasters, such as a high-speed rail accident in 2011, survivors and family members of victims galvanized to protest the government and demand information and redress. This time, though, relatives of the people who were on the flight have been swaddled in official security and oversight and largely kept away from reporters.
Liu Yi, Joy Dong, Claire Fu and Li You contributed research.