At Least 170 Die in Russian Plane Accident
Wednesday, August 23, 2006
MOSCOW, Aug. 22 -- A Russian jet packed with vacationers traveling home to St. Petersburg from a Black Sea resort caught fire in midair and crashed in Ukraine on Tuesday afternoon, Russian and Ukrainian officials said.
The plane carried at least 170 people, including 45 children and a crew of 10. There were no survivors, rescue personnel and airline officials said.
The three-engine Tupolev-154 took off at 3:05 p.m. from Anapa, a family resort on the north shore of the Black Sea known for its children's summer camps. Around 3:35 p.m., the plane, caught in a lightning storm, issued the first of four emergency signals. Minutes later, it disappeared from radar screens, according to the Ukrainian Emergency Situations Ministry and airline officials.
Ukrainian officials said that the plane caught fire at 33,000 feet and that pilots requested an emergency landing. The plane descended sharply, air traffic controllers reported, and crashed near the village of Sukha Balka, about 30 miles from the city of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine. Parts of the plane continued to burn hours after the crash in a wooded area.
The pilots were apparently trying to land in nearby open fields, and some officials said the plane's landing gear did not come down.
Officials said they had ruled out terrorism, which downed two Russian commercial flights simultaneously in August 2004.
"Ukrainian sources said the plane was caught in a thunderstorm," said Irina Andrianova, a spokeswoman for the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry, according to the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti.
"According to the witnesses living in the villages around the place where the plane went down, it caught fire in the air and attempted a belly landing," Anatoly Medved, Ukraine's deputy minister for emergency situations, told Ukrainian television.
Russian officials said they had yet to confirm Ukrainian reports that the plane caught fire.
Ukrainian officials said they had found dozens of bodies, but their work was hampered by fire and heavy thunderstorms in the area.
The Tupolev, the workhorse of Russia's commercial fleets, was operated by Pulkovo Airlines, a regional carrier based in St. Petersburg. The airline said the plane was manufactured in 1992 and had 24,215 hours of flight time. The pilot was experienced and had 9,000 hours of flying time, the airline said.
At Pulkovo Airport in St. Petersburg, relatives of the passengers were taken to a crisis center where doctors and psychologists were helping them. Airport officials said reporters would not be allowed to speak to the relatives. Officials said they would fly relatives to Donetsk on Wednesday.
Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the creation of a commission to investigate the crash.
It was the third major airline disaster in the region since May. On July 9, an A-310 airbus operated by S7, Russia's second-largest carrier, crashed after it veered off the runway upon landing in the Siberian city of Irkutsk. Of the 204 people on board, 124 were killed. On May 3, a plane operated by the Armenian national carrier, Armavia, crashed as it approached the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi. The cause of that crash, which killed all 113 passengers and crew members, is still under investigation.
Tuesday's crash was the second major accident in recent years involving a Russian passenger jet flying over Ukraine. In October 2001, the Ukrainian military accidentally shot down a Russian plane with a missile during military exercises. All 78 people aboard were killed.
Russian airlines, which at one time had a somewhat notorious reputation, had been steadily improving their safety performance in recent years, but the spate of recent accidents may raise questions anew about air travel in the country.