China aviation official says no safety issues at airport where plane crashed, killing 42

YICHUN, China (AP) — A top aviation official defended the safety of an airport in remote northeast China where a plane crashed while coming in for a night landing — the country's worst commercial air disaster in nearly six years, a state news agency reported Thursday.

Forty-two of the 96 people on board the Henan Airlines flight were killed and the fuselage of the Embraer 190 jet was burned to bits in a forest valley about a mile (1.5 kilometers) from the runway at Yichun city's Lindu Airport late Tuesday.

A major Chinese airline — China Southern — last year scrapped night flights into Yichun, citing concerns about the surrounding terrain, runway lighting and weather conditions. But Li Jian, vice director of the Civil Aviation Authority of China, said the airport in Heilongjiang province met all safety requirements.

"It is no comparison to big airports, but the safety standards are guaranteed," Li was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua News Agency. The airport was built to handle nighttime flights, he said.

The airport was closed after the crash Tuesday night but reopened midday Thursday.

The accident underscores the breakneck expansion of China's aviation industry in recent years and the struggle of regulators to keep up. Airports have proliferated as have small regional airlines, reaching into remote cities like Yichun — 90 miles (150 kilometers) from the Russian border — that are eager to develop tourism and other industries to catch up with the country's economic boom.

There were no updates on the cause of the crash Thursday, though investigators recovered the plane's flight recorders a day earlier, Xinhua said. The 40-year-old captain, Qi Quanjun, who survived the crash but was injured, told Xinhua he couldn't remember anything.

Shortly before the crash, Qi told air traffic controllers he saw the runway lights and was preparing to land, Xinhua quoted an Yichun city official as saying.

Survivor Xue Xilai was also quoted as saying that the crew announced the plane would be landing soon but did not say conditions were foggy or that there was any danger.

Henan's board of directors fired the airline's general manager, Li Qiang, and appointed an acting manager to replace him, Xinhua said. Cao Bo, Li's replacement, served as the chief pilot of Shenzhen Airlines, the parent company of Henan Airlines.

Fifteen severely injured survivors were taken to bigger hospitals in Harbin, the provincial capital where the doomed flight had taken off, Xinhua said. They included five children with respiratory tract burns.