The accident will be a jolt for China’s fast-growing aviation sector, which has had no major accident in recent years, thanks to stricter safety rules, better training and relatively young fleets of mainly Western-made aircraft.
The Henan Airlines plane crashed at 9.36 pm (1336 GMT) in Yichun, a remote city of one million in Heilongjiang province surrounded by forests, after flying from provincial capital Harbin, the Civil Aviation Administration of China said.
The airline has grounded all flights for the next three days, an official told Reuters by telephone, declining further comment.
Yichun has a small domestic airport that only opened last year, one of an increasing number of airports built in distant parts of China to help boost economic development.
While the cause of the crash is still being investigated, Caijing magazine cited local rules as saying that Yichun airport is “in principle” not supposed to operate at night.
State media initially said 43 people had died but later revised down the death toll by one. Seven of the 54 survivors were severely injured, Yichun mayor Wang Aiwen was quoted as saying.
Their injuries included burns, cuts and broken limbs.
“When I looked out the window, I couldn’t see anything. There were no lights at all,” Xinhua quoted survivor Xue Xilai as saying. “Soon after that, the plane bounced heavily on the ground and then broke in two.”
There were 91 passengers, including five children, as well five crew members on board the ERJ-190, built by Brazil’s Embraer, Xinhua said. The passengers appeared to be mainland Chinese, except for one person from Taiwan.
“When the back part of the plane landed, I felt a strong jolt, and then the plane seemed to begin to come apart,” another survivor told state television from his hospital bed.
“I began to run, but there was no way out ahead or behind. Then we saw a crack and ran through it to escape,” he added.
Xinhua said one of those seriously injured was vice-minister of human resources Sun Baoshu, who was heading to Yichun for a meeting.
The report noted that the Communist Party boss of Yichun, Xu Zhaojun, had said the crew reported being able to see lights on the ground and had requested a normal landing.
Xinhua said the pilot had survived and had serious facial injuries but was not in a life-threatening condition.
By daylight Wednesday police had sealed off the scene of twisted and burnt wreckage and the bodies of the dead were wrapped in body bags, waiting to be taken to a morgue, said Xinhua.
Technicians from Embraer, the world’s largest maker of regional jets, flew Tuesday to China to investigate the crash. Embraer shares tumbled 3.9 percent to 10.42 reais in Sao Paulo.
Henan Airlines is a small regional carrier controlled by Shenzhen Airlines, itself part-owned by Air China. The airline is based in Henan, a poor province in central China, and recently changed its name from Kunpeng Airlines.
The number of airline passengers in China grew from 67.2 million trips in 2000 to 230.5 million in 2009, according to government statistics.
China’s last major civilian aircraft crash was in 2004, when a CRJ200 operated by China Eastern Airlines came down in a frozen lake in northern Inner Mongolia shortly after take-off, killing more than 50 people. Reuters