MOSCOW —The Russian investigation into the crash of a military transport plane that killed dozens of members of the Red Army Choir is focusing on pilot error or a technical fault, rather than terrorism, a top official said Monday.
Sunday’s crash was the second national tragedy for Russia in less than a week, once again in the shadow of the country’s military involvement in Syria. Once again, the nation was left with more questions than answers.
Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov said on television the main theories for the crash “do not include the idea of a terrorist act.”
“We are working on the assumption that the reasons for the catastrophe could have been technical or pilot error,” he said. All 92 people on board are believed to have died.
The crash shook Russia six days after its ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov, was killed in public by a man who shouted about the war in Syria after the shooting.
A beloved and prominent charity worker was also killed in the crash when the plunged into the Black Sea minutes after it took off en route to a military base in Syria
Russia’s special Investigative Committee, which opened a criminal inquiry, said it was considering all possibilities.
A massive sea and air search operation has been launched with some 3,500 people and 32 ships, including over a 100 divers from across the country.
The government has helicopters ships and submarines searching the Black Sea for debris and bodies, the Defense Ministry said.
Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, a military spokesman, told reporters in Moscow that no one survived after the aging Soviet-era jet, which had set out from Moscow, crashed shortly after taking off from the Sochi airport. The plane did not send a distress signal.
The pilot was “first-class,” Konashenkov said, and the 33-year-old Tu-154 jet had been serviced recently.
In nationally televised comments, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared Monday a national day of mourning and said the cause of the crash would be carefully investigated.
Throughout the day, top-ranking legislators and Defense Ministry officials assured the public that a terrorist could never have made it onto the heavily guarded airfield outside Moscow where the jet first took off. Later, officials revealed that the plane had been scheduled to refuel at the military base in Mozdok, Russia, but had been rerouted to Sochi because of inclement weather. The Interfax news agency quoted a military source as saying the airport in Sochi, site of the 2014 Olympics, also has increased security.
The Defense Ministry published a list of passengers that included 64 members of the famed Alexandrov Ensemble, better known internationally as the Red Army Choir. They were heading to the Khmeimim air base in Syria to entertain Russian military personnel for the New Year’s holiday.
The choir, founded in 1928, has performed around the world. During the Cold War, it presented a human face for the Soviet Union with its repertoire of Russian folk songs. More recently, the ensemble, which the Defense Ministry said had 285 members, added popular Western music to its performances. Among those who were on the plane was the ensemble’s artistic director, Valery Khalilov.
Also aboard was Yelizaveta Glinka, known in Russia as “Doctor Liza,” who had won broad acclaim for her charity work, which included missions to the war zone in eastern Ukraine. Her foundation announced that she was accompanying a shipment of medicine for a hospital in Syria.
Russian state television showed clips of her accepting an honor from Putin for her work. When she and fellow workers depart for a war zone, she said at the ceremony this month, “we never know whether we’ll return, because war is hell on Earth.”
Throughout the day in Moscow, people placed flowers outside the headquarters of the choir.
The country also mourned nine journalists who were on the flight, and some stations canceled entertainment programs in favor of wall-to-wall coverage of the recovery effort and interviews with loved ones of the victims.
Their remains, authorities said, were to be taken to Moscow for identification.
U.S. Ambassador John Tefft joined other diplomats and international leaders in offering condolences.
The Tu-154, designed in the late 1960s, was the workhorse of the Soviet, and later Russian, fleet of intermediate-range passenger jets. Russian airlines have replaced the jets with modern aircraft, but government agencies have continued to use them.
Denis Manturov, Russia’s minister for industry and trade, said Sunday that it was too early to make a decision about whether to take the jets out of service.
“First we need to finish the investigation and understand the reasons” for the crash, he said.