Grieving Relatives Head To Ukraine Crash Site

SUKHA BALKA, Ukraine -- Grieving relatives and investigators were heading to eastern Ukraine on Wednesday where a Russian airliner carrying 170 people home from a seaside resort crashed, killing everyone on board.

Rescue workers, joined by a fresh team of Russian specialists, worked through the night with lights powered by generators, wading through marsh searching for the plane’s “black box” flight recorders, which have now been found.

Officials said the plane had probably been hit by lightning and then hurtled into the ground as the crew tried to maneuver out of a violent storm. But investigators warned against drawing any premature conclusions about the accident.

“Until the commission’s work is complete, we can make no explanations or suppositions,” Vadim Seryogin, head of a rescue team at the site, told Russia’s First Channel television.

Ten crew and 39 children were among the dead in the crash, the second major loss of life involving a Russian airliner in two months. Most of the passengers were Russians but some Dutch nationals were also on board.

Russian television showed the first group of relatives arriving in the Russian Black Sea resort town on Anapa before being taken to the crash site to identify the dead. Others were due to fly in later in the day.

Russian Transport Minister Igor Levitin, head of a commission probing the accident, was also heading to the site.

Ball of flame

Russian television showed a film clip taken by a local resident showing a ball of flame rearing up in the distance along with a vast cloud of smoke.

“We all heard a loud rumble and I turned to see the plane beginning to fall...It hung in the air and then began to hurtle toward the ground. It all lasted about 10 seconds,” Yevgeny Donets, in his early 20s, told First Channel.

“We ran to the scene, but you could hardly see for the downpour. Everyone was dead. We made our way through the marshes. There was a big fire and a lot of smoke.”

Fragments of the Soviet-designed Tu-154 jet were scattered across a gully and woodland near the village of Sukha Balka. A burnt-out engine lay in a field and chunks of fuselage jutted out of a clearing.

Ukraine declared Wednesday a national day of mourning. Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday would be a day of mourning in his country.

Flight 612, operated by Pulkovo Airlines, was flying on Tuesday afternoon from Anapa back to its home base in St. Petersburg.

Russian television said the aircraft had received authorization from air traffic control to fly across Ukraine’s eastern tip, where it encountered a thunderstorm.

“According to initial information there was a lightning strike on the plane,” a Russian Emergencies Ministry spokeswoman said on Tuesday evening.

About 60 people came to the airport in St. Petersburg on Tuesday to meet the flight. Ambulance crews were called out to hand out sedatives after relatives were told of the crash.

Last month, 122 people died when their Airbus skidded off the runway on landing in the Siberian city of Irkutsk. Russian aviation had a poor safety record in the 1990s but it has improved its reputation since then.

Source: Reuters