A Chinese passenger jet broke apart as it approached a fog-shrouded runway in the country’s northeast and burst into flames as it hit the ground Tuesday, killing 43 people and injuring 53 others, state media said.
The Henan Airlines plane with 91 passengers and five crew crashed in a grassy area near the Lindu airport on the outskirts of Yichun, a city of about 1 million people in Heilongjiang province, the official Xinhua News Agency said.
Xinhua quoted Hua Jingwei, an Yichun publicity official, as saying that some passengers were thrown from the cabin before the broken plane hit the ground.
The Brazilian-made Embraer E-190 jet had taken off from Heilongjiang’s capital of Harbin shortly before 9 p.m. (1300 GMT) and crashed a little more than an hour later, Xinhua said.
A middle-aged man who survived the crash told China Central Television there was bad turbulence as the plane descended, then several big jolts that caused the luggage to come crashing down from the overhead bins.
“After we stopped, the people in the back were panicking and rushed to the front,” the unidentified man, who had no visible injuries, said in an interview from a hospital bed. “We were trying to open the (emergency exits) but they wouldn’t open. Then the smoke came in … within two or three minutes or even a minute, we couldn’t breathe. I knew something bad was going to happen.”
It was not clear from his account at what point the plane broke apart. The man said he and a few others escaped from a hole in the wall of the cabin near the first row of seats, then ran from the burning wreckage.
CCTV showed firefighters dousing the burning plane with hoses and later digging through the wreckage of the jet.
Xinhua said 43 bodies were recovered within hours of the disaster and 53 people were hospitalized, most with broken bones. Wang Xuemei, vice mayor of Yichun, told CCTV that three survivors were in critical condition but gave no details.
CCTV earlier said that 91 people were on board, and gave a lower death and injured toll, but the report appears to not have included the five crew on the plane.
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. Previously known as Kunpeng Airlines, the carrier was relaunched as Henan Airlines earlier this year.
Henan Airlines 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.
An American company, Phoenix-based Mesa Air Group Inc., was an original investor in Henan’s predecessor company, Kunpeng, but divested its stake last year. Mesa operates regional services in the U.S. for Delta AirLines, United Airlines and other carriers and is undergoing bankruptcy reorganization.
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 an China Eastern airplane plunged into a lake in northern China shortly, killing all 53 on board and two on the ground.
An MD-11 cargo plane operated by Zimbabwe-based Avient Aviation crashed during takeoff from Shanghai’s main airport last November. Three American crew members died while four others on board were injured.