YICHUN, China – YICHUN, China (AP) — A major Chinese airline had questioned the safety of nighttime flights at the airport in northeastern China where a passenger jet crashed and burned while trying to land at night on a fog-shrouded runway, killing 42 people and injuring 54.
The Henan Airlines plane crashed late Tuesday in a grassy area near Lindu airport in the Heilongjiang province city of Yichun. Survivors among the 96 passengers and crew described scenes of horror and their escapes through flames and broken holes in the fuselage.
It was China's first major commercial air disaster in nearly six years. The plane's two "black boxes" were recovered Wednesday, the official Xinhua News Agency reported, but it is still not known what caused the accident.
Vice Prime Minister Zhang Dejiang arrived Wednesday at the crash site to help set up an investigation team. State television reported that a preliminary investigation found that the airplane did not break apart in the air, as previously reported by local media, and that there were no signs of sabotage.
The small, newly built airport in Yichun sits in a forested valley and has operated for a year but with little traffic. It lists at most only two regularly scheduled flights a day, by Henan Airlines and China Southern Airlines, both to Harbin, Heilongjiang's capital.
China Southern decided last August to avoid night takeoffs and landings at Yichun, switching its daily flight from Harbin to the daytime. A technical notice cited concerns about the airport's surrounding terrain, runway lighting and wind and weather conditions.
"Principally, there should be no night flights at Yichun airport," said the notice from China Southern's Heilongjiang branch that was posted online. An employee with the branch's technical office confirmed the notice's authenticity. He declined to give his name because he was not authorized to talk to the media, but said China Southern decided to cancel the night flights "for safety concerns. We're cautious."
Based on that notice, the runway lights were probably "the most basic available," said an employee with Shenzhen Airlines, the parent company of Henan Airlines.
"If there's fog or bad weather, it'll make it very difficult for the pilot to land," said the employee, who asked not to be identified by name because he wasn't authorized to speak with the media.
He said two of his friends, a recently married couple who worked together as flight attendants, were among the dead.
"They always fly together. They said that was so that they could go home together," he said, describing chief stewardess Lou Lu and her husband, Zhou Haobin.
He said the captain, Qi Quanjun, was a 40-year-old former People's Liberation Army pilot. Xinhua said Qi survived but was badly hurt and unable to speak because of severe injuries to his face.
The crash and fire were so severe that little of the fuselage remained, though the charred tail was still largely intact. China Central Television said eight of the victims were found 65 to 100 feet (20 to 30 meters) from the plane's wreckage in a muddy field.
Xinhua said officials had earlier reported 43 dead because one body was torn apart in the crash and had been counted as two.
One survivor told Xinhua that there was strong turbulence just after the announcement that the plane was about to land.
"There were four or five bad turbulence (jolts) and luggage in the overhead bin was raining down," he was quoted as saying. "Everyone panicked. Those sitting in the back began rushing to the front of the cabin."
"There was smog, which I knew was toxic. I held my breath and ran until I saw a burning hole on one side of the cabin. I crawled out and ran at least 100 meters (yards) to ensure I was safe."
One of the dead was a Chinese with a foreign passport, according to Xinhua, but it did not give the nationality. It also said a passenger from Taiwan was hurt.
Five of those on board were children, the Civil Aviation Administration of China said. At least one, an 8-year-old boy named Ji Yifan, survived and described to Xinhua how he was saved by another passenger. "Someone dragged me to the emergency exit door and threw me out before I realized what was going on," the boy said.
Ji told Xinhua that the evacuation slide, which was on fire, broke as he was sliding down. "I fell to the ground. Again someone dragged me aside," he said. He was speaking from his hospital bed, where he had bruises on his face, neck and arms.
The Brazilian-made Embraer E-190 jet had taken off from Harbin shortly before 9 p.m. and crashed a little more than an hour later while arriving at Yichun, a city of about 1 million people 100 miles (160 kilometers) from the Russian border.
Eighteen officials from China's Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security and various provincial branches were on the flight, headed to a meeting in Yichun, Xinhua said. It said Vice Minister Sun Baoshu was in critical condition with broken bones and head injuries.
The official magazine of the Civil Aviation Administration of China reported last June that Henan Airlines had reported some problems with their E-190 jets, finding engine turbine cracks and erroneous information showing up in the flight control systems.
The airline, then called Kunpeng Airlines, discussed those problems with technicians from Embraer engine-maker General Electric Corp. and officials from CAAC at a meeting, the report said.
Xu Chaoqun, deputy director of the CAAC flight standards department, told the parties to work together to find the cause of the problems and ways to fix them, the report said. But it was not immediately clear if the issues were resolved.
A man in the news department at the CAAC said he was unaware of the alleged complaints and that his superiors were unavailable to answer questions because they were dealing with the aftermath of the crash.
Tracy Chen, a spokeswoman for Embraer in Beijing, said she could not confirm the report but noted the company was cooperating with authorities in the investigation.
The company posted a statement on its website extending "profound condolences and wishes for recovery to the families and friends of those lost or injured in the accident."
Henan Airlines is based in the central Chinese province of the same name and flies smaller regional jets, mainly on routes in north and northeast China. It launched the Yichun-Harbin service this year.
Henan Airlines, which on Wednesday suspended all its flights, and many other regional Chinese airlines flying shorter routes have struggled in the past few years, losing passengers to high-speed railroad lines that China has aggressively expanded.
Full-tilt expansion of Chinese air traffic in the 1990s led to a series of crashes that gave China the reputation of being unsafe. The poor record prompted the government to improve safety drastically, from airlines to new air traffic management systems at airports.
The last major passenger jet crash in China was in November 2004, when a China Eastern airplane plunged into a lake in northern China, killing all 53 on board and two on the ground.
Associated Press reporter Anita Chang and researchers Yu Bing, Xi Yue and Zhao Liang contributed to this report.