MOSCOW (AFP) – A Russian plane exploded into flames after crashing on a highway just short of its airport, killing 44 and leaving eight survivors fighting for their lives, officials said Tuesday.
The RusAir Tupolev 134 was trying to land at its destination of Petrozavodsk in the Karelia region of northwestern Russia in bad weather but failed to make the runway and instead hurtled onto a road two kilometres (1.25 miles) away.
The impact of the landing blasted parts of the plane and corpses of the passengers several hundred metres distant as the burning wreckage blazed in the night sky.
“The plane sustained a hard landing two kilometres from Petrozavodsk,” the emergencies ministry said in a statement on its website. “Forty-four people were killed and eight people injured.”
Seven of the eight survivors remained in a serious condition in Petrozavodsk hospitals, the health ministry said, and medics planned to evacuate six of the wounded to Moscow.
The survivors included a nine-year-old boy called Anton Terekhin, and his sister Anastasia Terekhina, 14, from Sakhalin Island in Far Eastern Russia, while their mother died, a regional emergency ministry spokeswoman told AFP.
Medics did not plan to evacuate Terekhin due to his extremely poor state, health minister Tatyana Golikova told journalists.
“The boy’s state is extremely serious, critical. He had a large loss of blood,” Golikova told journalists in comments reported on the ministry’s website.
In conflicting reports, the health ministry listed Terekhin as aged 10 and his sister as born in 1984.
A Swedish national, a Dutch citizen and two Ukrainians were among the dead, as well as a family of four with dual Russian and US citizenship, the emergency ministry said on its website.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin expressed their condolences to the victims’ families and the regional authorities announced three days of mourning.
Television footage showed rescue workers examining the wreckage with paint burnt off and the wheels in the air. The plane had splintered off the tops of trees and broken through a fence perilously close to a residential area.
The plane, flying from Moscow’s Domodedovo airport, carried 43 passengers and nine crew members.
Local resident Mikhail Osipov told Channel One television how he saw the plane crash close to his garden and tried to save passengers, including a man whose clothes were on fire.
“A man .. was burning. I ran for a bedspread and a jacket and we put out the flames and we dragged him into the middle of the field.”
“We were able to pull out another woman to the middle of the field, she was still alive. She is lying over there,” he said, pointing to a body bag.
The force of the crash scattered wreckage over a distance of 300 metres (yards), investigators said.
The head of the Karelia region, Andrei Nelidov, travelled to the scene of the crash and promised the relatives of the dead compensation of 1 million rubles ($35,711).
Russia’s Karelia region, which lies close to the border with Finland, is a picturesque area of lakes and forests hugely popular with Russian tourists for the summer holidays.
The head of the Petrozavodsk airport Alexei Kuzmitsky told Interfax that weather conditions around the airport at the time were “unfavourable” and Andrianova said there had been heavy fog and rain when the plane crashed.
“The Tu-134 hit a power line due to pilot error, cut it, depriving the runway of power,” said Kuzmitsky.
Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov said that the crash appeared to be the result of “pilot error in bad weather” and the crew tried to spot the runway visually and simply landed in the wrong place.
“The pilot did not land on the runway, but to the right,” he said.
But the inter-state air commission (MAK), which investigates air accidents in the ex-USSR, said it was premature to draw conclusions. The plane’s black boxes have been located.
RusAir officials told Russian news agencies that the plane, made in 1981, had been completely checked before take-off and there had been no technical problems.
Russia’s aviation industry remains blighted by repeated accidents involving its ageing fleet of planes, with the Soviet-era Tupolev jets having a particularly poor safety record.
In April last year, a Tu-154 carrying Polish president Lech Kaczynski and other top officials came down in fog near the Russian city of Smolensk killing all 96 people on board.
In September, a Tu-154 made a miraculous emergency landing on a derelict airstrip in Russia’s remote Komi region after its electrical systems failed midflight.