Russian Passenger Jet Crashes in Ukraine

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 22, 2006; 1:38 PM

MOSCOW, Aug. 22 -- A Russian jet carrying 171 people, including 39 children, to St. Petersburg from a Black Sea resort caught fire in mid-air and crashed northwest of the Ukrainian city of Donetsk Tuesday afternoon, Russian and Ukrainian officials said.

There were no survivors among the 161 passengers and crew of 10, rescue personnel 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.

At 3:37 p.m. the airplane issued an emergency signal and two minutes later disappeared from radar screens, according to the Ukrainian Emergency Situations Ministry.

Ukrainian officials said the plane caught fire at 30,000 feet and 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 Donetsk in eastern Ukraine. Parts of the plane continued to burn hours after the crash in a wooded area near open fields.

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 the state news agency RIA-Novosti. Russian officials said they had yet to confirm Ukrainian reports that the plane caught fire.

Ukrainian officials said they had found 30 bodies, but their work was hampered by fire and heavy rain and thunderstorms in the area.

The Tupolev, the work-horse of Russia's commercial fleets, was operated by Pulkovo Airlines, a regional carrier based in St. Petersburg. The airline said 33 passengers were under the age of 12 and there were six children under the age of two.

Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the creation of a commission to investigate the crash.

The crash was the third major airline disaster in Russia 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 is also 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 the flight bound for Tel Aviv were killed.

Russian airlines, which had a somewhat notorious reputation, had steadily been improving their safety record in recent years, but the spate of recent accidents will raise questions anew about air travel in the country.

With 39 children on board, the Tupolev that crashed Tuesday will immediately invoke memories of the mid-air collision of two jets over Germany in July 2002. A flight operated by Bashkirian Airlines, a Russian regional carrier, hit a DHL cargo jet over at 30,000 feet. The Russian plane was carrying 52 Russian children to a resort in Spain.

Eight Swiss air-traffic controllers were charged with manslaughter this month for their role in that collision. In 2004, a Russian man who lost his wife and two children in the disaster stabbed to death a Swiss controller.

Vitaly Kaloyev was sentenced in October 2005 to eight years in prison for the killing of Peter Nielsen. Russia has sought to have Kaloyev repatriated so he can serve his sentence at home.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company