Russians see plane disaster as fresh evidence of nation's decay

Less than a week after scores of Siberian miners died in an explosion, Russia was in mourning again yesterday as rescuers, working in Arctic temperatures, retrieved the remains of 48 people who died when a cargo plane smashed into a block of flats.

The accident, scalded into the memory of millions by pictures of the plane's vast white tail jutting out of the building's ruins, will deepen the despair of many Russians who see such disasters as evidence of the national decay that has set in since the end of the Soviet Union.

The Russian government yesterday suspended all flights by Antonov-124s, a military cargo plane, until it has established why one of them fell out of the sky 20 seconds after taking off from Irkutsk in southern Siberia on Saturday. News agency reports yesterday said that after take-off the pilots complained that two of their four engines had failed.

Other speculation centred on poor quality fuel, and the possibility that its cargo - two Sukhoi-27 fighter jets, destined for Hanoi - was incorrectly loaded. The truth may lie within the aircraft's flight recorders, which have been found and dispatched to Moscow for analysis.

Miraculously, the 340-tonne plane narrowly missed an orphanage of 150 children, although the building caught fire, claiming the lives of two of them. Yesterday, watched by groups of the bereaved, 1,600 rescue workers rummaged through the wreckage in temperatures that fell to as low as minus 30C. Sergei Shoigu, the Russian emergencies minister, told reporters that some people were still missing, and the death toll could rise to 62.

Last night, the Russian television news was dominated by accounts of the accident, accompanied by harrowing pictures of the injured. Russia can sometimes seem hardened to bloodshed and tragedy. But this disaster, coupled with 67 deaths in last Tuesday's blast in a coal mine in Novokuznetsk, has been a heavy blow. It is one that Boris Yeltsin, struggling to limit the effects of a political scandal and global financial turmoil, could do without. So, too, could the city of Irkutsk, for whom it was the return of a nightmare: in 1994, it was the scene of Russia's deadliest post-Soviet crash, when a Tu-154 crashed, killing 124 people.

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