Chinese Airport Drew Safety Concerns Before Crash
BEIJING — China’s largest passenger airline deemed nighttime landings at a new airport in northeastern China unsafe a year before a Henan Airlines jet crashed there on Tuesday night, killing 42 passengers and injuring 54 others.
China Southern Airlines, the country’s largest passenger carrier, concluded that the Lindu airport, outside Yichun, a city of one million people in Heilongjiang Province, was “in principle not suitable for night flights,” according to a safety notice posted on a Chinese news media organization’s Web site. Daytime landings in rainy conditions were also ruled out for the airline, the notice said.
The small airport, nestled in a thickly forested valley, opened last year, according to Chinese news media.
The crash Tuesday at the Lindu airport was China’s first major passenger airline disaster since a China Eastern Airlines plane crashed into a lake in northern China in 2004, killing 55 people. China has recently made a concerted effort to tighten safety rules and improve training.
It has also been rapidly opening new airports to help spur economic development and satisfy surging demand. The number of airline passengers in China more than tripled between 2000 and 2009, government statistics show.
On Wednesday, investigators continued to search for clues that would explain why the plane, a Brazilian-made Embraer E-190, crashed into a grassy area and burst into flames at 9:36 p.m. Tuesday while trying to land on a fog-shrouded runway at the Lindu airport. The jet had taken off about 40 minutes earlier from the provincial capital of Harbin.
A team of Chinese officials, led by Deputy Prime Minister Zhang Dejiang, headed for Yichun for the inquiry. Technicians from Embraer also flew to China to investigate. Henan Airlines grounded all flights for three days.
The state-run Xinhua news agency reported that Chinese carriers had previously complained of problems with E-190 aircraft, including cracks in the turbine plates and flight control system errors. China’s Civil Aviation Administration organized a workshop in June to discuss the concerns, Xinhua said.
A local official told Xinhua that crew members of the Henan Airlines flight reported that they could see lights on the ground and requested a normal landing.
Survivors said the plane jolted so violently while trying to land that luggage flew off the overhead racks. One middle-aged man, interviewed in a hospital bed by the state-controlled CCTV television network, said that after the jet hit the ground, smoke billowed from the rear of the plane and he feared suffocation.
“It was very strong,” he said. “It looked like we had only two or three minutes left. I knew something bad was going to happen.”
He said he and other passengers tried without success to open the emergency exit door, then escaped through a crack in the plane’s fuselage near the first row of seats.
Another passenger who had been seated in the 10th row told CCTV that the rear of the plane had hit the ground first. “I rushed to the front, tried to smash the window with my fist, but failed,” he said. “I walked to the back, but couldn’t get out either. Then somebody said there was a crack in the plane, so we managed to get out from there.”
Hua Jingwei, head of the Communist Party’s propaganda department in Yichun, told Xinhua that the plane broke in two as it approached the runway, throwing some passengers out of the cabin. That account was not immediately confirmed by survivors.
Henan Airlines primarily operates regional flights. Passengers on the Tuesday night flight from Harbin included five children and a team of officials from Beijing, among them the vice minister for human resources, Sun Baoshu. He was described as seriously injured.
Officials said that most of the survivors suffered broken bones. Three were in critical condition.
Zhang Jing contributed research.
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