STEPANOVSKOYE (AFP) – Rescuers yesterday searched through deep snow for body parts and debris after a Russian passenger plane crashed near Moscow minutes after take-off, killing all 71 people on board, in the country’s deadliest air crash since 2016.
The Antonov An-148 plane went down in a snow-covered field, making it difficult to access, with emergency workers forced to reach the wreckage by foot or on snowmobiles.
The accident happened in Ramensky district around 70 kilometres southeast of Moscow on Sunday at 2.28pm after the plane departed from Domodedovo airport outside the Russian capital.
Sixty-five passengers and six crew members were on board and all of them died, Russia’s Investigative Committee said.
The flight was operated by the domestic Saratov Airlines and was headed for the city of Orsk in the Orenburg region close to Russia’s border with Kazakhstan.
Yesterday, rescuers in dark uniforms trudged across the site in formation, using shovels to shift snow around 40 centimetres deep, a video journalist saw.
The Investigative Committee, which takes charge of major incidents and is probing the crash of the eight-year-old plane, said that the aircraft caught fire on the ground after crashing.
“At the moment of falling, the aeroplane was intact, without a fire. An explosion took place after the plane crashed,” it said, adding that it is looking into factors including the pilots’ training and the plane’s technical state.
A Swiss citizen and a citizen of Azerbaijan were among the dead listed by the emergency services ministry. A Kazakh citizen may also have died, transport minister Maxim Sokolov said.
Three victims were children, including a five-year-old girl.
The victims’ remains were so damaged that genetic testing is required, investigators said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin sent condolences and “is constantly receiving information” about the crash, his spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists.
Mr Putin – who is running for re-election in a March 18 poll – cancelled plans to travel to the Black Sea resort of Sochi to meet Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas yesterday. Instead, the meeting was to take place in Moscow.
With wreckage of the plane spread over more than 30 hectares, it will take a week to inspect the whole area, the emergency services ministry said.
“We plan to carry out the main stage of the search operation in seven days because the plane debris is scattered over a very large area,” emergency services minister Vladimir Puchkov said, quoted by Interfax news agency.
He added that “heavy snow” and difficult terrain hampered searchers.
By noon yesterday, eight hectares had been examined, turning up numerous body fragments and plane debris, TASS news agency reported, citing the rescue team.
One black box has been found, containing flight data but not voice recordings, the Investigative Committee said. It will be examined by the Interstate Aviation Committee, which probes air crashes in the region.
Witnesses said they heard a crash or felt an explosive force when the plane came down.
“When it hit the ground we heard a loud bang. We saw a large fiery ball rise up from the spot… We thought it was a meteorite,” said Tatiana Zhukova, a housewife living in the nearby village of Stepanovskoye.
The plane was built in Ukraine in 2010 and bought by Saratov Airlines from another Russian airline a year ago, the carrier said.
It said it was suspending all flights using that model of plane.
Saratov Airlines was founded in the 1930s and flies to 35 Russian cities. Its hub is the central airport of Saratov on the Volga river.
The governor of the Orenburg region where the plane was heading and most passengers lived, declared yesterday a day of mourning with flags lowered and entertainment events cancelled.
Russia has suffered numerous plane crashes, with airlines often operating ageing aircraft in dangerous flying conditions.
A light aircraft crashed in November in Russia’s far east, killing six people on board.
In December 2016, a military plane carrying Russia’s famed Red Army Choir crashed after taking off from Sochi, killing all 92 people on board.
Pilot error was blamed for that crash.
In March 2016, all 62 passengers died when a FlyDubai jet crashed in bad weather during an aborted landing at Rostov-on-Don airport.