A China Eastern Airlines passenger plane carrying 132 people has crashed in southern China, shortly after losing contact with air traffic control and dropping thousands of metres in under three minutes.
There was no immediate confirmation of the number of casualties, but the disaster prompted an unusually swift public reaction from President Xi Jinping, who said he was “shocked” and ordered an immediate investigation into its cause.
There was no word on the cause of the crash of the plane. State broadcaster CCTV said the crash “caused a mountain fire” which was later extinguished.
The Boeing 737-800 flight from the city of Kunming to the southern hub of Guangzhou “lost airborne contact over Wuzhou” in the Guangxi region on Monday afternoon, according to the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC).
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“This flight has crashed,” the CAAC said, adding the jet was carrying 123 passengers and nine crew members.
Hundreds of firefighters were dispatched to the scene in Teng county near the city of Wuzhou, state media reported, as nearby villagers rushed to help the rescue effort.
“Everyone went to the mountains,” Tang Min, who runs a small restaurant a few kilometres from the crash site, told AFP by telephone.
Fears for the fate of the jet spread on Monday afternoon as local media reported that China Eastern flight MU5735 had not arrived as planned in Guangzhou after taking off from Kunming shortly after 1:00pm (0500 GMT).
Flight tracking website FlightRadar24 showed no data for the flight after 2:22 pm.
The tracker showed the plane sharply dropped from an altitude of 29,100 feet to 3,225 feet (8,870 to 982 metres) in three minutes, before flight information ceased.
Al Jazeera’s Katrina Yu said it was the biggest aviation incident China has had in years.
“China’s civil aviation authority says there were 132 people on board, including the crew,” Katrina said, speaking from Beijing.
“It seems like there is a wildfire caused by the plane coming down [in Quangxi], and you can get a sense of how remote this area is,” she continued.
“Because of how difficult this terrain is you can see that it is not going to be easy to get rescue teams there very quickly.”
China Eastern is one of China’s three major air carriers, operating scores of domestic and international routes serving 248 destinations.
The airline changed its website to black and white only on Monday afternoon, and opened an emergency assistance phone number.
A January company report said China Eastern had 289 Boeing 737-series aircraft in its 751-strong fleet.
The safety record of the country’s airline industry has been among the best in the world over the past decade.
The twin-engine, single-aisle Boeing 737 is one of the world’s most popular planes for short and medium-haul flights.
The 737 Max version was grounded worldwide after two fatal crashes. China’s aviation regulator cleared that plane to return to service late last year, making the country the last major market to do so.
According to Aviation Safety Network, China’s last fatal jet accident was in 2010, when 44 of 96 people on board were killed when an Embraer E-190 regional jet flown by Henan Airlines crashed on approach to Yichun airport in low visibility.
The deadliest Chinese commercial flight crash was a China Northwest Airlines crash in 1994, which killed all 160 onboard.
Xi called for “all efforts” towards the rescue and to find out the “cause of the accident as soon as possible”, according to CCTV.
“We are shocked to learn of the China Eastern MU5735 accident,” he said, calling for “the absolute safety of the sector and people’s lives”.