No survivors have been found in 36 hours after Monday’s crash, with the hunt for the plane’s black box continuing.
Crash investigators have said that they do not yet know why a China Eastern jet carrying 132 plunged from the sky, with recovery teams still scouring a forested mountainside for the flight recorders from the Boeing aircraft.
The velocity of the crash, which left twisted metal and scattered passengers’ belongings across a swath of forest, meant no survivors had been found nearly 36 hours after Monday’s crash.
It is China’s deadliest air disaster in three 30 years, in a country with an enviable air safety record.
“With the current information, we are unable to make a clear judgement on the cause of the accident,” Zhu Tao, director of the aviation safety office at China’s aviation authority, said late on Tuesday, adding that the focus is now on “the search for flight recorders”.
Search teams planned to work through the night using their hands, picks, sniffer dogs, and other equipment to look for survivors, state broadcaster CCTV reported.
The steep, rough terrain and the huge size of the debris field were complicating the search for the black box, which holds the flight data and cockpit voice recorder, CCTV and the official Xinhua News Agency said.
Hassan Shahidi, president and CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation, told Al Jazeera that it was still too early to get any definitive answers on the cause of the crash.
“The investigators will be looking at all aspects of this flight, including any mechanical, or structural issues,” Hassan said. “They will be looking into the maintenance history of the aircraft as well as records of pilot training. Boeing is expected to be part of the process to provide the necessary expertise. Investigators would want to find the flight data recorder and the voice recorder to find out exactly what happened.”
Drones were being used to search the fragments of wreckage that were scattered across both sides of the mountain into which the plane crashed, state media reported.
Questions have mounted about the cause of the crash, which saw the stricken jet drop 20,000 feet (6,096 metres) in just more than a minute before plunging into rugged terrain in southern China on Monday afternoon.
The airline has officially acknowledged that some on board the jet, which was travelling from the city of Kunming to the southern hub of Guangzhou, had perished, but has stopped short of declaring all on board as dead.
The deadliest Chinese commercial flight accident was a China Northwest Airlines crash in 1994 that killed all 160 people onboard.
‘Miss you forever’
In Guangzhou airport, staff assisted loved ones of the 123 passengers and nine crew members on board the plane, which stopped sending any flight information after dropping a total of 26,000 feet in altitude in just three minutes.
Relatives and friends of those onboard endured a grim wait for news.
A user on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform, wrote that he was a friend of a crew member on the crashed plane.
“I will miss you forever,” he wrote, describing the “enthusiasm” his friend took to his new job this year.
The disaster prompted an unusually swift public reaction from President Xi Jinping, who said he was “shocked” and called for “absolute safety” in air travel.
State media said Vice Premier Liu He, a powerful official close to Xi who usually deals with economic matters, had been dispatched to the area to oversee rescue and investigation work.