137 dead in Russian plane crash

IRKUTSK (AFP) — Up to 137 people died Sunday when a Russian passenger plane veered off a runway, slammed into a concrete wall and burst into flames while landing in the Siberian city of Irkutsk, officials said.

“Sixty-three people survived the crash… There were 200 people onboard,” a spokesman for the Irkutsk section of the emergency situations ministry told AFP.

Eleven people walked away from the crash site among a complex of garages near the airport and 52 others were hospitalised, the spokesman said, adding that 120 bodies had been recovered from the wreckage.

Other rescue officials quoted by Russian news agencies said up to 70 people may have survived.

The incident occurred when the Airbus A310 careered off the tarmac early Sunday in slippery conditions, possibly due to a hydraulic brake failure, according to an enquiry official.

The plane then broke through a wall and ploughed into the garage complex used by local residents, officials said.

Russia’s Vesti 24-hour news channel broadcast images recorded on a mobile phone that showed flames and thick black smoke billowing from the fuselage.

“It was terrifying. People were shouting. People were on fire. I saw people on fire. Then I jumped out,” said Margarita Svetlova, a young survivor interviewed on Russia’s Channel One television station.

One witness said he saw survivors clambering out onto the plane’s wing and walking from the scene, many of them suffering burns.

Fourteen children aged 12 and under, as well as 12 foreigners were on board the plane operated by S7 Airlines, until recently known as Sibir, said Russian news agencies.

The foreigners were two Azerbaijanis, two Belarussians, three Chinese, three Germans and two Poles, S7 said in a statement cited in news reports.

Also among the passengers was a group of children on their way to a holiday in the scenic Lake Baikal region near Irkutsk, reports said. The passengers also included the head of the FSB security service for the Irkutsk region, General Sergei Koryakov, officials said. It was the second recent crash of an Airbus in Russia, after an Armenian Airbus A320 crashed into the Black Sea near Sochi in May killing all 113 on board.

In Moscow, relatives gathered at Domodedovo airport and prepared to leave for Irkutsk, some becoming distraught on learning the fate of loved ones.

“They’re trying to calm us down. They’re saying there’s still a chance — it’s chaos there,” said Volodya, whose 22-year-old niece was among the passengers, as he waited at a temporary crisis centre where pre-packaged aeroplane meals were handed out to relatives.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered a government enquiry to be set up, Transport Minister Igor Levitin said.

No definite reason for the crash has yet been put forward, but officials said that the black box flight recorders had been found and would be sent to Moscow for examination.

The landing at Irkutsk airport is said to be unusually difficult because of the relatively short runway, lodged among mountains.

One enquiry official said the plane’s hydraulic brakes had failed to function.

“The information we have shows that after landing… there was a failure in the braking system that led other mechanisms in the system to break down,” the official told RIA-Novosti news agency.

“This meant the plane was basically out of control after landing,” the unnamed official said.

Prosecutors announced they had opened a criminal enquiry into the crash.

Putin expressed “his deep condolences to relatives and friends of those who died in the plane crash in Irkutsk,” the Kremlin press service said.

The Russian leader declared Monday a national day of mourning, calling for flags to be flown at half-mast and for television channels to cancel entertainment shows, the Kremlin said in a written statement.

Airbus said in a statement that specialists had been dispatched to Russia to provide assistance.

The plane was built in 1987 and had carried out more than 10,000 flights, Airbus said.

In a previous major accident at Irkutsk airport in 2001, all 145 people aboard a Tu-154 jet were killed as the plane was coming in to land.

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