Tuesday, June 21, 2011

44 killed in Russian plane crash, 8 survivors

44 killed in Russian plane crash, 8 survivors

By IRINA TITOVA Associated Press © 2011 The Associated Press

June 21, 2011, 3:29AM

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — A Russian passenger jet crashed in heavy fog and burst into flames on a highway in northwestern Russia, killing 44 people, officials said. Eight people survived.
The Tu-134 plane, belonging to the RusAir airline, had taken off from Moscow and was moments from landing at the airport of Petrozavodsk when it slammed into the highway just before midnight Monday, Emergencies Ministry spokeswoman Oksana Semyonova told The Associated Press.
The ministry said in a statement on its website that 44 people were killed, including four with dual U.S. and Russian citizenship. Eight survivors, including a mother, her 9-year old son and 14-year old daughter, were hospitalized in critical condition in Petrozavodsk.
Semyonova said the plane slammed into the ground about 100 meters (yards) from a small village, but no casualties were reported on the ground.
Petrozavodsk is in Karelia province, near the Finnish border, about 400 miles (640 kilometers) northwest of Moscow.
Russia's top investigative agency said bad weather, human error or a technical malfunction might have contributed to the crash.
Adding to the difficulty of landing the plane in deep fog, the runway's high-intensity illumination intended to help the crew at times of low visibility failed just as the plane was on its final approach, Alexei Morozov, deputy head of the Interstate Aviation Committee, said, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency.
The airport's chief, Alexei Kuzmitsky told the Interfax news agency that according to preliminary information, the descending plane clipped a power line, cutting off the runway lights.
Sergei Shmatkov, an air traffic controller who oversaw the plane's approach, was quoted by the lifenews.ru online newspaper as saying the visibility near the airport was close to the minimum admissible level at the time of the crash, but the pilot still decided to land. "Most likely, the crew continued descent at a moment when they already should have begun a second run," he told the lifenews.ru in a telephone interview.
Shmatkov said he ordered the crew to abort the landing the moment the runway lights went off, but it already was too late.
RusAir said the plane was in good working order.
The Tu-134, along with its larger sibling the Tu-154, has been the workhorse of Soviet and Russian civil aviation since the 1960s. The model that crashed was built in 1980, had a capacity of 68 people and a range of about 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles).
Magomed Tolboyev, a highly decorated veteran Russian test pilot, said that the Tu-134, while outdated, has a good reputation for its reliability and that human error was the most likely cause. "The human factor is always key, especially now when the level of crew training is very low and not controlled by the government," Tolboyev said, according to Interfax.
Russian television stations broadcast footage of charred plane fragments strewn around the highway, less than one kilometer (about half a mile) short of the runway. Landing gear jutting out from the ground was the only recognizable plane part.
The state news network Rossia-24 broadcast footage of a woman showing video she shot on her phone of the plane burning on the highway. A nearby road sign indicating the way to the airport stood undamaged.
The plane was carrying 52 people, including nine crew members, Semyonova said. Four people with dual U.S. and Russian citizenship were listed among the dead — Lyudmila Simanova, Alexander Simanov, Yelizaveta Simanova and Yekaterina Simanov. The U.S. Embassy had no immediate information.
The official list of victims included a Swedish citizen, a Dutchman and two Ukrainians. Russian Premier League soccer referee Vladimir Pettay also was listed among the dead.
The Karelia branch of the Emergencies Ministry said radio contact with the pilot was lost at 11:40 p.m. local time. The plane's flight data recorders have been recovered.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev offered condolences to the victims' families and sent his transport minister to oversee the investigation. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was due Tuesday at the Paris Air Show to support dozens of Russian firms seeking sales contracts.
In recent years, Russia and the other former Soviet republics have had some of the world's worst air traffic safety records, according to official statistics. Experts blame the age of aircraft, weak government controls, poor pilot training and a cost-cutting mentality for the poor safety record, leading to emergency landings being reported with alarming regularity.
Polish President Lech Kaczynski was among 96 people killed when his Tu-154 crashed in heavy fog while trying to land near the western Russian city of Smolensk in April 2010.

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