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Safety questions swirl after China plane crash

By Robert Saiget

BEIJING, Wednesday 25 August 2010 (AFP) - Investigators Wednesday sifted through the charred wreckage of a Brazilian-made Chinese airliner for clues on why it crashed while trying to land in heavy fog, killing 42 people and injuring 54.

The government promised a thorough but speedy probe into China's first major air disaster in nearly six years, amid reports of past technical problems with the model of jet involved -- a twin-engine ERJ-190 made by Brazil's Embraer.

Survivors of late Tuesday's crash in a remote part of northeast China described terrifying jolts before the Henan Airlines domestic flight slammed into the ground, leaving a long trail of crumpled metal burning in the dark.

The black box flight data recorder was recovered near Lindu airport in the northeast city of Yichun where the Henan ERJ-190, which was carrying 91 passengers and five crew, crashed.

The Beijing Youth Daily reported that a bigger airline, China Southern, suspended all night flights in and out of Lindu airport in September 2009 -- just days after the facility opened for business -- because of safety concerns.

Civil aviation authorities were hoping to glean information also from the plane's captain, who survived the crash but was so far unable to speak due to severe facial injuries, Xinhua news agency reported.

Lindu airport -- located in a forested area about nine kilometres (five miles) outside Yichun -- was closed on Wednesday and all Henan Airlines flights grounded, Xinhua said.

"The plane really started to jolt in a scary way -- the plane jolted five or six times very strongly," one male survivor told China Central Television from his hospital bed, describing scenes of panic as passengers tried to escape.

A second male survivor interviewed by CCTV -- his head bandaged and his nose bloodied -- also said he felt a "big jolt" as the plane was coming in to land and heard "big crashes -- bam bam bam".

Rescuers meanwhile transferred victims' bodies wrapped in silver bags to funeral homes for identification, Xinhua said.

Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang visited the survivors -- mainly from the plane's front and middle sections -- who were being treated in four local hospitals and "demanded a quick investigation" into the cause of the crash, Xinhua said.

State television said a preliminary probe had ruled out any intentional wrongdoing, as well as any mid-air explosions or fires.

Provincial police said visibility was less than 300 metres (yards) at the time of the crash due to heavy fog.

Xinhua said Chinese carriers using ERJ-190s had previously reported technical problems, and that the Civil Aviation Authority of China (CAAC) called a workshop in June 2009 to discuss the issues.

Notes from the meeting -- which involved Kunpeng Airlines, as Henan Airlines was previously known -- showed that broken turbine plates and flight control system errors were among the problems, Xinhua said.

Henan Airlines has grounded three of the four other ERJ-190s it operates on other routes following the crash, China National Radio said, adding that the crashed plane was only two years old.

Embraer offered its condolences to the victims' families and said it had sent a team of technicians to help with the investigation.

The crash occurred just after 9:30 pm (1330 GMT) on Tuesday, around 40 minutes after the plane took off from the northeast city of Harbin.

Henan Airlines, which mainly operates in north and northeast China, had only launched the route two weeks ago, Xinhua said.

Among those on board were 18 officials from China's Ministry of Human Resources including vice-minister Sun Baoshu, who was in a serious condition, it reported.

A passenger from Taiwan was lightly injured with burns to his back but was recovering, officials from the island said.

Wang Xuemei, the vice mayor of Yichun who oversaw the rescue efforts, said most of the survivors had suffered broken bones.

It was China's first major air disaster since a China Eastern Airlines jet crashed in Inner Mongolia in November 2004, killing 53 people on board and two on the ground.

MySinchew 2010.08.25

 

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