'Freak accident' downs Russian airliner

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The Independent Online

A Russian airliner packed with tourists and families "dropped out of the sky" yesterday during a thunderstorm after apparently being struck by lightning.

All 170 people on board died in what appeared to have been a freak accident. "The plane most likely was hit by lightning," said the emergency services spokeswoman Irina Andriyanova. "After it fell, it broke apart and burst into flames."

The aircraft, a Russian-built Tupolev-154 operated by St Petersburg's Pulkovo Airlines, crashed in the Ukrainian countryside after sending at least two SOS signals and a garbled voice message.

It was on its way to St Petersburg, Russia's second city, and its flight had begun at the Russian Black Sea resort of Anapa, a popular destination with cost-conscious Russian tourists who flock there in the summer months for its sandy beaches and Soviet-era sanatoriums.

The aircraft was carrying 160 passengers, many of them holidaymakers, and a crew of 10. Among the passengers were 39 children, six of whom were less than two years old. There were no survivors and within hours of the crash emergency workers, who said they were faced with "the worst-case scenario," reported that they had recovered 30 bodies.

Russian TV broadcast images of firefighters hosing down the charred remains of the mostly intact fuselage with water.

President Vladimir Putin, who is holidaying at the Black Sea resort of Sochi, which is near Anapa, called on ministers to initiate an official inquiry into the crash. The most likely explanation for the crash is that the pilot lost control due to unusually poor weather conditions. The plane is reported to have encountered extreme turbulence, a situation that was made worse by a storm and an apparent lightning strike.

"The plane was in the air and all of a sudden there was a flash of lightning," a man in his twenties told Russia's NTV television. "Then I saw the plane veering sharply downwards before it fell in a field over there."

Another possibility is that a fire broke out on board and the crew tried to make an unsuccessful emergency landing.

Another theory is that the accident, like many such crashes, was the result of human error.

"It is hard to comment now," said Magomed Tolboyev, a retired test pilot and Hero of Russia. "However, in my opinion all plane crashes are due to the human factor."

The plane's "black box" or flight recorder should shed more light on the matter when recovered. But what is known for certain is that yesterday afternoon a Ukrainian air traffic controller noticed that the airliner, which had to cross Ukrainian territory to get back home, suddenly plunged from 30,000 feet before smashing into the earth, 30 miles from the town of Donetsk.

Questions are likely to be asked about the safety of the Tupolev-154 involved in the crash, an aircraft used by many Russian airlines for internal flights.

The Tupolev is a Soviet-era plane and flew its first passengers in 1968, but Pulkovo Airlines said yesterday that the model that crashed yesterday was made in 1992. The airline said it had another 20,000 flight hours to clock up before it was due for a routine service.

Relatives of the victims gathered at St Petersburg's Pulkovo airport last night and were being offered counselling by psychologists.

The disaster is the third Russia has experienced this year. Last month an Airbus A-310 operated by Russia's S7 Airlines skidded off a runway and burst into flames in Siberia, killing at least 122 people. In May, an Airbus A-320 operated by Armenia's Armavia Airline crashed into the Black Sea while trying to land in the Russian resort of Sochi in bad weather, killing all 113 people on board.