Sunday, September 14, 2008

Official: Jet crash in Russia mountains kills 88

A passenger jet traveling from Moscow to the Ural Mountains city of Perm crashed near residential buildings as it was preparing to land early Sunday, killing all 88 people aboard, officials said.

Emergency Situations Ministry spokeswoman Irina Andrianova said there was no indication of terrorism in the crash of the Boeing-737-500, which went down on the outskirts of the city at about 3:15 a.m. local time.

Flight 821 operated by an Aeroflot subsidiary carried 82 passengers and six crew members, Aeroflot said in a statement. Among those killed were citizens from the United States, France, Turkey, Switzerland, Germany, Italy and Latvia, company spokeswoman Irina Danenberg said.

The plane was on its approach to land amid low cloud cover when it crashed into an unpopulated area of the city, just a few hundred yards from residential buildings. Danenberg said the plane was at about 3,600 feet when it lost contact with ground dispatchers.

The most likely cause of the crash was technical failure, Vladimir Markin, a spokesman for the federal prosecutors' Investigative Committee, said in televised comments.

A section of rail track was destroyed in the crash, which scattered paper, clothing, life preservers and parts of engines for several hundred yards along the track. Sections of the plane's fuselage reading "Aeroflot" and "Boeing" lay askew on the rails.

Part of the Trans-Siberian railway was also shut down as a result of the rail damage, said Alexander Burataeva, a spokesman for the national railroad company.

"I felt an explosion, it threw me off the bed. ... My daughter ran in from the next room crying 'What happened? Has a war begun or what?'" a woman in Perm who was not identified told Vesti-24 TV. "My neighbors, other witnesses told me that it was burning in the air, it looked like a comet. It hit the ground opposite the next house, trailing like fireworks in the sky."

Officials said there were no deaths on the ground; investigators had found the planes' "black box" flight recorders and were working to analyze them.

Danenberg said the plane was at about 3,600 feet when it lost contact with ground dispatchers.

Pavel Shevchenko, a 36-year-old Perm resident who lives just 330 yards from the site of the crash, said he was awoken by an explosion and ran outside. He said debris was scattered around the area, along a section of tracks destroyed by the impact of the plane, but the heat from the flames kept him from getting closer.

He said a neighbor who witnessed the crash told him the plane hit the ground sharply — at a 30 or 40 degree angle.

He said he feared his acquaintances or friends could be among the dead.

"It's awful. There's just no words to describe it. Perm is a small town, everybody knows everybody else here," Shevchenko told The Associated Press. Perm is about 750 miles east of Moscow.

Russia and the other former Soviet republics have some the world's worst air traffic safety records, according to the International Air Transport Association. Experts have blamed weak government controls, poor pilot training and a cost-cutting mentality among many carriers that affects safety.

No problems were reported with the 15-year-old jet when it was last inspected at the beginning of 2008, Aeroflot Deputy Director Lev Koshlyakov said.

"Aeroflot has a good reputation in the field of safety," Koshlyakov told reporters at Moscow's Sheremyetevo airport, from where the flight departed. The incident is "a hard blow for our reputation."

Sunday's crash was the second involving a Boeing 737 in the former Soviet Union in the past month. A Boeing flying from the Central Asian nation of Kyrgystan to Iran crashed shortly after takeoff on Aug. 24, killing 64 of the 90 people on board.

The pilot of that plane has been detained by prosecutors in connection with the investigation, officials said this week.

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