Plane crashes in Siberia; 118 confirmed dead

The plane, on a flight from Moscow to Irkutsk, veered off the runway as it was landing.

plane crash 88 (photo credit: )
plane crash 88
(photo credit: )
A Russian passenger plane skidded off a rain-slicked Siberian runway early Sunday and plowed through a concrete barrier, bursting into flames. At least 118 people were killed and about 14 still unaccounted for, officials said. The S7 Airbus A-310 was carrying 200 people - a crew of eight and 192 passengers - on a flight from Moscow to Irkutsk. Many were children headed to nearby Lake Baikal on vacation, according to Russian news reports. Rescue workers recovered at least 118 bodies, said a duty officer in the regional branch of Russia's Emergency Situations Ministry. He said that 68 people were known to have survived the crash; 53 were hospitalized with burns and smoke poisoning. The plane veered off the runway on landing and tore through a 2-meter-high (6-foot-high) concrete barrier. It then crashed into a compound of one-story garages, stopping a short distance from some small houses. A witness said he heard a bang and the ground trembled. "I saw smoke coming from the aircraft. People were already walking out who were charred, injured, burnt," Mikhail Yegeryov told NTV television. "I asked a person who was in the Airbus what happened, and he said the plane had landed on the tarmac but didn't brake. The cabin then burst into flames," Yegeryov said. Transport Minister Igor Levitin blamed the wet runway. The crash occurred around 7:50 a.m. (2250 GMT Saturday), apparently shortly after rain. "The aircraft veered off the runway. There was rain, the landing strip was wet. So we'll have to check the clutch and the technical condition of the aircraft," he told Russian state television. The Prosecutor-General's Office said that investigators considered a technical fault or human error as the two most likely versions of the crash, news agencies reported. Airline official Alexander Zyubr said that the plane was in good technical condition, according to RIA-Novosti. Irina Andrianova, a spokeswoman for the Emergency Situations Ministry, said it took firefighters more than two hours to put out the fire. There were two explosions caused by the ton of fuel in the plane, Moscow radio reported. Russian television showed smoke rising from the wreckage and firefighters clambering on top. "It was traveling at a terrific speed," the spokeswoman said. She said the front end of the plane was crumpled in the crash 4,200 kilometers (2,600 miles) east of Moscow. Six people were in a critical condition, including a 10-year-old child, the medical emergencies center in Irkutsk was quoted as saying by RIA-Novosti. President Vladimir Putin conveyed his condolences to friends and family of the victims, the Kremlin said. Details began to emerge of the chaotic aftermath of the crash. One air stewardess, Viktoria Zilberstein, opened the emergency hatch in the rear of the aircraft and let a number of passengers out, said the Ministry's regional branch. Ten passengers managed to escape this way and other survivors, including a pilot, were rescued by firefighters and rescuers from the burning place, ITAR-Tass reported. The transport minister said the aircraft's two black boxes had been recovered and were being deciphered. Levitin added that the pilot had radioed ground control to say the aircraft had landed safely and then communication cut off. Relatives began to arriving later Sunday at Moscow's Domodedovo airport, from where the plane took off. A man who gave his name only as Vyascheslav, whose brother, wife and 4-year-old son were on the plane, sat on a stone curb outside a crisis center near the airport fighting back tears. "They're not on the list" of passengers hospitalized, he said gloomily. His friend Larissa Kolcheva, a 27-year-old Muscovite, said the three had flown up to Moscow from the Moldovan capital, Chisinau, on Saturday morning and spent the day with Larissa and Vyascheslav before leaving for Irkutsk in the evening. The brother's wife was traveling to the Siberian city to visit her sister, whom she had not seen in 10 years. "We met them yesterday morning at this very airport. It was great. We spent the day with them seeing Moscow. They were sitting with us in a cafe literally yesterday evening. Everything was beautiful," she said, starting to cry. In May, another Airbus aircraft crashed in stormy weather off Russia's Black Sea coast as it prepared to land, killing all 113 people on board. Airline officials blamed the crash of the Armenian passenger plane on driving rain and low visibility. In March 1994, a half-empty Airbus A-310 belonging to Russian state airline Aeroflot crashed near the Siberian city of Novokuznetsk, killing 70 people. Investigators said the crash was caused mainly by the pilot's teenage son inadvertently disconnecting the autopilot. Sunday's disaster was the fourth air crash in Irkutsk in the past 12 years. In January 1994, a TU-154 aircraft crashed on takeoff from Irkutsk, killing 124 people. In December 1997, an An-124 military transport aircraft crashed in a residential area of the city, killing 72 people. And in July 2001, a Tu-154 Russian passenger plane crashed near Irkutsk, killing all 143 people on board. S7, formerly known as Sibir, is Russia's second-largest airline, carved out of Aeroflot's Siberian wing after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Cash-strapped and saddled with aging aircraft, regional airlines whittled out of Aeroflot were once notorious for their disregard for safety but their records have improved in recent years.