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Sibir Jet Veers Off Runway, 122 Dead

An Airbus jetliner slid off a rain-soaked runway, crashed into a concrete barrier and burst into flames at the Irkutsk airport early Sunday, killing at least 122 of the 204 people on board.

A brake failure on landing appears to be the most likely cause of the crash.

S7 Flight 778 from Moscow was carrying 14 children under the age of 12 and 12 foreigners, said the airline, formerly called Sibir.

Footage broadcast on NTV television showed the tail of the A310 visible through billowing black smoke as flames engulfed the rest of the plane after it crashed into one-story brick garages at the airport's perimeter.

"It was terrible, really terrible because people were shouting, people were on fire," survivor Margarita Svetlova told Channel One television. "Someone shouted that it was all going to blow up. So I ran out of fear. I ran out."

Ten passengers were able to escape through the rear door of the plane, Itar-Tass reported. While the paint on the tailfin was still intact after a two-hour fire, the front of the plane was reduced to a smoldering wreck of ash and twisted metal.

"I asked a person who was in the Airbus what happened, and he said the plane had landed on the tarmac but didn't brake. The cabin then burst into flames, and [the plane]hit the barrier," Mikhail Yegeryov, another witness, told NTV.

As of Sunday evening, 12 people were missing, while 58 of the 70 survivors remained hospitalized, the Emergency Situations Ministry said in a statement.

Only seven children were on the list of survivors in the hospital, NTV reported. Some of the children on board were reportedly traveling for a vacation by Lake Baikal.

Of the 12 foreigners on board, Sibir said three were Chinese and three German, and there were two each from Poland, Azerbaijan and Belarus. The two Poles and two Belarussians were in the hospital, as well as two of the Germans and one Azeri, the airline said.

Of the eight crew members, five were missing and three were in the hospital. A pilot was among those rescued from the burning wreckage by firefighters, Itar-Tass reported.

A flight attendant, Viktoria Zilberstein, opened the emergency hatch in the rear of the aircraft and let a number of passengers out, The Associated Press cited the ministry's regional branch as saying.

The Transportation Ministry said three of the injured people were not on the official list of passengers.

Sibir was offering information about passengers and crewmembers on a dedicated web site, www.bort778.info, in both English and Russian.

The crash took place at 7:50 a.m. local time, five and one-half hours after taking off from Domodedovo airport.

The pilot told the air-traffic controller that the landing was complete, and then the radio connection was lost, Transportation Minister Igor Levitin told Rossia television. Some passengers had started to clap to congratulate the pilot on a successful landing, NTV reported.

Both black boxes have been found and are being studied, Levitin said.

An unidentified crash investigator told RIA-Novosti that a failure in the plane's braking system appeared to be the most likely cause of the crash.

"The data that the [investigation] committee has at the moment suggests that following the landing ... the braking system failed, causing other mechanisms to fail," the investigator said. "This contributed to the fact that after the landing, the plane was practically uncontrollable."

Levitin said that poor weather conditions may have played a part in the disaster.

"The plane rolled off of the runway, it was raining, the runway was wet. Therefore we need to check the traction and the plane's technical condition," he told Rossia television.

On Sunday afternoon, the Prosecutor General's Office said that several possible causes for the crash were being considered, including human error and faulty equipment, Interfax reported. Terrorism was not mentioned as a possible cause.

The Irkutsk regional prosecutors' office has begun an investigation into possible safety violations, the agency reported.

Pilots regard the Irkutsk airport as difficult because its runway slopes and because its concrete is especially slippery when wet, Vladimir Biryukov, an expert at the Gromov Aviation Institute, said on NTV.

Since 1994, four other airliners have crashed in the city, which is an important hub on the Trans-Siberian route. In 2001, a Tu-154 crashed on final approach, killing all 145 people on board. In 1997, an Antonov cargo plane crashed into an apartment building shortly after taking off from the airport, killing 72 people.

Flight 778 left Domodedovo at 9:15 p.m. on Saturday evening, with all passengers and baggage going through the normal security procedures, the airport said in a statement. The plane was on time after its 4,200-kilometer flight.

The plane was almost full, with 193 out of 205 seats filled, according to Sibir.

Sibir said that the aircraft had passed recent checkups without any problems and that it was under the command of an experienced pilot, Sergei Shibanov, who had more than 10,500 flight hours.

The plane was built in 1987 and flew with PanAm and Aeroflot before being leased to Sibir in 2004, Sibir said.

The crash was the second by an Airbus in Russia in the past two months. On May 3, an Armavia A320 crashed into the Black Sea 6 kilometers from Sochi, killing all 113 passengers on board. Sibir owns 70 percent of Armavia, Armenia's largest airline.

Airbus sent six investigators to the scene of the crash.

Sibir, the country's No. 2 airline, was recently re-branded S7.

Crisis centers have been set up at both Irkutsk and Domodedovo airports to offer counseling to relatives of the victims. A hotline and web site have also been set up to help the victims' families and friends. Sibir has offered to fly them to Irkutsk.

The FSB chief for the Irkutsk region, Sergei Koryakov, was on the plane but his name is not among those being treated in the hospital, Interfax cited local FSB officials as saying.

President Vladimir Putin offered his condolences to the victims of the crash on Sunday morning and ordered that all possible help be offered to those involved, according to a statement on the Kremlin web site. He declared Monday a national day of mourning.

Pope Benedict XVI was among other world leaders who offered their condolences.


(The Moscow Times 10.vii.06)

 
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