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In this photo released by Xinhua News Agency, rescue workers search for the black boxes at a plane crash site in Tengxian county, southwestern China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Tuesday, March 22, 2022. A China Eastern flight 5735 carrying 123 passengers and nine crew members crashed outside the city of Wuzhou in the Guangxi region while flying from Kunming, the capital of the southwestern province of Yunnan, to Guangzhou, an industrial center not far from Hong Kong on China's southeastern coast. It ignited a fire big enough to be seen on NASA satellite images before firefighters could extinguished it. (Zhou Hua/Xinhua via AP)

Investigators have found what they believe to be the cockpit voice recorder in the wreckage of a China Eastern flight that crashed in the country’s south with 132 people on board, a Chinese aviation official said Wednesday.

The outer casing of one of the two “black boxes” aboard the plane and its storage component both suffered damage, but the unit is “relatively intact,” Zhu Tao, director of the Office of Aviation Safety at the Civil Aviation Authority of China, told reporters at a briefing.

The recorder will be sent to Beijing for decoding and analysis, Zhu said. How long that will take depends on the degree of damage the unit suffered, he said.

“This will provide important evidence as to the cause of the accident,” he said. Investigators will next “continue to go all-out to find the flight data recorder to provide even more comprehensive data support to reconstruct the entire incident,” he said.

Images released earlier by state broadcaster CCTV showed workers placing a bright orange, mud-caked cylinder into a labeled, clear plastic, zip-close bag.

Recovering the so-called black boxes — they are usually painted orange for visibility — is considered key to figuring out what caused the crash. They’re typically located in the tail area, where they’re less likely to be damaged in a crash.

The search for clues into why the jetliner dove suddenly and crashed into a mountain in southern China on Monday afternoon had to be temporarily suspended earlier Wednesday as rain slickened the debris field and filled the red-dirt gash formed by the plane’s fiery impact.

Relatives of passengers onboard the China Eastern Flight 5735 arrive near the crash site, Wednesday, March 23, 2022, Lu village, in southwestern China's Guangxi province. The search for clues into why a plane made an inexplicable dive and crashed into a mountain in southern China was suspended Wednesday as rain slicked the debris field and filled the red-dirt gash formed by the plane's fiery impact. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

 

Wallets and identity and bank cards have been found and human remains were also recovered Wednesday, Zheng Xi, head of the fire and rescue service in the Guangxi autonomous region where the plane crashed, told reporters.

“The area is overgrown with weeds and the terrain is steep,” Zheng said.

“With the rain, visibility has been poor, introducing a certain degree of difficulty into the rescue operation,” he said.

Searchers are using hand tools, including metal detectors, along with drones and sniffer dogs under rainy conditions to comb the heavily forested slopes. Crews also worked to pump water from the pit created when the plane hit the ground, but their efforts were suspended around midmorning because small landslides were possible on the steep, slick slopes.

The flight data recorder captures information about the plane’s airspeed, altitude, direction up or down, pilot actions, and performance of all key systems.

Cockpit voice recorders generally gather sound from pilots’ headsets and an overhead microphone. They can capture voices, audio alerts and background sounds from the engine or even switches being moved.

Relatives of passengers onboard the China Eastern Flight 5735 arrive near the crash site, Wednesday, March 23, 2022, Lu village, in southwestern China's Guangxi province. The search for clues into why a plane made an inexplicable dive and crashed into a mountain in southern China was suspended Wednesday as rain slicked the debris field and filled the red-dirt gash formed by the plane's fiery impact. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)Relatives of passengers onboard the China Eastern Flight 5735 leave the village near the crash site on Wednesday, March 23, 2022, in southwestern China's Guangxi province. The search for clues into why a plane made an inexplicable dive and crashed into a mountain in southern China was suspended Wednesday as rain slicked the debris field and filled the red-dirt gash formed by the plane's fiery impact. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

Mao Yanfeng, the director of the accident investigation division of the Civil Aviation Authority of China, left and He Rong from the Guangxi Fire and Rescue Force attend a press conference in Wuzhou city on Wednesday, March 23, 2022, in southwestern China's Guangxi province. China says one of two black boxes from the China Eastern plane crash was found in severely damaged condition. The recorder is so damaged that they are not able to tell whether it is the flight data recorder or the cockpit voice recorder. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)Mao Yanfeng, the director of the accident investigation division of the Civil Aviation Authority of China attend a press conference in Wuzhou city on Wednesday, March 23, 2022, in southwestern China's Guangxi province. China says one of two black boxes from the China Eastern plane crash was found in severely damaged condition. The recorder is so damaged that they are not able to tell whether it is the flight data recorder or the cockpit voice recorder. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)A screen displays cancelled China Eastern Airline flights at Kunming Changshui International Airport, Tuesday, March 22, 2022, in Kunming in southwest China’s Yunnan province. No survivors have been found among the 132 people onboard a China Eastern Boeing 737-800 that departed from Kunming and crashed Monday in the southern province of Guangxi. As family members gathered at the destination and departure airports, what caused the crash remains a mystery. (AP Photo/Dake Kang)Screens display cancelled China Eastern Airline flights at Kunming Changshui International Airport, Tuesday, March 22, 2022, in Kunming in southwest China’s Yunnan province. No survivors have been found among the 132 people onboard a China Eastern Boeing 737-800 that departed from Kunming and crashed Monday in the southern province of Guangxi. As family members gathered at the destination and departure airports, what caused the crash remains a mystery. (AP Photo/Dake Kang)

A China Eastern Airlines plane taxis on a runway at Kunming Changshui International Airport, Tuesday, March 22, 2022, in Kunming, in southwest China’s Yunnan province. No survivors have been found among the 132 people onboard a China Eastern Boeing 737-800 that departed from Kunming and crashed Monday in the southern province of Guangxi. As family members gathered at the destination and departure airports, what caused the crash remains a mystery. (AP Photo/Dake Kang)

“It’s invaluable information, especially since this crew apparently failed to communicate (with air traffic controllers) on their way down,” said John Goglia, a former member of the U.S. crash investigator, the National Transportation Safety Board. “I hope they get good voice on that recorder, because that will tell us exactly what was going on in the cockpit.”

Officials said members of the air crew were healthy, the aircraft had a clean maintenance record, the weather had been good during the flight and the pilots had been in regular communication with air traffic controllers prior to going into a dive.

Relatives of passengers began arriving Wednesday at the gate to Lu village just outside the crash zone, where they, along with reporters on the scene, were stopped by police and officials who used opened umbrellas to block the view beyond.

One woman was overheard saying her husband, the father of their two children, was on board the flight.

“I’m just going in there to take a look. Am I breaking the law?” she said. The woman and a companion were then escorted away and reporters told to stop filming.

Another man, who gave just his surname, Ding, said his sister-in-law was on the plane. He said he hoped to visit the site but had been told little by the authorities.

“We’re just coming here to have a look,” said Ding, adding, “My heart sank all of a sudden,” upon hearing about the crash. He too was escorted away.

China Eastern Flight 5735 was carrying 123 passengers and nine crew from Kunming in Yunnan province to Guangzhou, an industrial center on China’s southeastern coast, when it crashed Monday afternoon outside the city of Wuzhou in the Guangxi region. All 132 people on board are presumed killed.

Investigators say it is too early to speculate on the cause. The plane went into an unexplained dive an hour after departure and stopped transmitting data 96 seconds into the fall.

An air-traffic controller tried to contact the pilots several times after seeing the plane’s altitude drop sharply, but got no reply, Tao said on Tuesday.

A relative of passengers onboard the China Eastern Flight 5735 leave the area near the crash site on Wednesday, March 23, 2022, Lu village, in southwestern China's Guangxi province. The search for clues into why a plane made an inexplicable dive and crashed into a mountain in southern China was suspended Wednesday as rain slicked the debris field and filled the red-dirt gash formed by the plane's fiery impact. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)Medical workers arrive for duty near the crash site on Wednesday, March 23, 2022, Lu village, in southwestern China's Guangxi province. The search for clues into why a plane made an inexplicable dive and crashed into a mountain in southern China was suspended Wednesday as rain slicked the debris field and filled the red-dirt gash formed by the plane's fiery impact. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)In this photo released by Xinhua News Agency, rescuers conduct search operations at the site of a plane crash in Tengxian County in southern China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Tuesday, March 22, 2022. Mud-stained wallets. Bank cards. Official identity cards. Some of the personal effects of 132 lives presumed lost were lined up by rescue workers scouring a remote mountainside Tuesday for the wreckage of a China Eastern plane that one day earlier inexplicably fell from the sky and burst into a huge fireball. (Zhou Hua/Xinhua via AP)

Mao Yanfeng, the director of the accident investigation division of the Civil Aviation Authority of China speaks during a press conference in Wuzhou city on Wednesday, March 23, 2022, in southwestern China's Guangxi province. China says one of two black boxes from the China Eastern plane crash was found in severely damaged condition. The recorder is so damaged that they are not able to tell whether it is the flight data recorder or the cockpit voice recorder. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

China Eastern is headquartered in Shanghai and is one of China’s three largest carriers with more than 600 planes, including 109 Boeing 737-800s. China’s Transport Ministry said China Eastern has grounded all of its 737-800s, a move that could further disrupt domestic air travel already curtailed because of the largest COVID-19 outbreak in China since the initial peak in early 2020.

The grounding order did not imply any mechanical problems with the fleet, but was an “act of responsibility toward passengers,” the chairman of China Eastern’s Yunnan province subsidiary said at Wednesday’s news conference.

The Boeing 737-800 has been flying since 1998 and has a well-established safety record. It is an earlier model than the 737 Max, which was grounded worldwide for nearly two years after deadly crashes in 2018 and 2019.

Monday’s crash was China’s worst in more than a decade. In August 2010, an Embraer ERJ 190-100 operated by Henan Airlines hit the ground short of the runway in the northeastern city of Yichun and caught fire. It carried 96 people and 44 of them died. Investigators blamed pilot error.

In this photo released by Xinhua News Agency, rescuers conduct search operations at the site of a plane crash in Tengxian County in southern China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Tuesday, March 22, 2022. Mud-stained wallets. Bank cards. Official identity cards. Some of the personal effects of 132 lives presumed lost were lined up by rescue workers scouring a remote mountainside Tuesday for the wreckage of a China Eastern plane that one day earlier inexplicably fell from the sky and burst into a huge fireball. (Zhou Hua/Xinhua via AP)Video journalists film a news conference chaired by Zhu Tao, Director of Aviation Safety, Civil Aviation Administration of China, Sun Shiying, Chairman of China Eastern Airlines Yunnan Co., LTD and other officials following the China Eastern plane crash, at a hotel in Wuzhou, in southwestern China's Guangxi province, Tuesday, March 22, 2022. A China Eastern flight 5735 carrying 123 passengers and nine crew members crashed outside the city of Wuzhou in the Guangxi region while flying from Kunming, the capital of the southwestern province of Yunnan, to Guangzhou, an industrial center not far from Hong Kong on China's southeastern coast. It ignited a fire big enough to be seen on NASA satellite images before firefighters could extinguished it. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)Zhu Tao, third from left, Director of Aviation Safety, Civil Aviation Administration of China, Sun Shiying, fifth from left, Chairman of China Eastern Airlines Yunnan Co., LTD and other officials attend a news conference following the China Eastern plane crash, at a hotel in Wuzhou, in southwestern China's Guangxi province, Tuesday, March 22, 2022. A China Eastern flight 5735 carrying 123 passengers and nine crew members crashed outside the city of Wuzhou in the Guangxi region while flying from Kunming, the capital of the southwestern province of Yunnan, to Guangzhou, an industrial center not far from Hong Kong on China's southeastern coast. It ignited a fire big enough to be seen on NASA satellite images before firefighters could extinguished it. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)Zhu Tao, Director of Aviation Safety, Civil Aviation Administration of China speaks during a news conference following the China Eastern plane crash, at a hotel in Wuzhou, in southwestern China's Guangxi province, Tuesday, March 22, 2022. A China Eastern flight 5735 carrying 123 passengers and nine crew members crashed outside the city of Wuzhou in the Guangxi region while flying from Kunming, the capital of the southwestern province of Yunnan, to Guangzhou, an industrial center not far from Hong Kong on China's southeastern coast. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

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