Ice hockey team wiped out as 43 die in jet crash

Witnesses said the plane hit trouble just after taking off. It veered to the left and crashed on the banks of the Volga River

A plane carrying one of Russia's leading ice hockey teams crashed shortly after take-off yesterday, killing almost everyone on board in the latest in a series of fatal crashes in the country.

The chartered Yak-42 jet crashed minutes after taking off from the small airport in Yaroslavl, 150 miles east of Moscow, killing at least 43 people. Two people who survived the crash were critically injured.

The plane was carrying the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl ice hockey squad, who were en route to Minsk, the capital of Belarus. They were due to play Dinamo Minsk today in the first round of fixtures in the Continental Hockey League, the top league for teams from Russia and former Soviet countries. Lokomotiv, one of Russia's best sides, finished third in the league last season.

Witnesses said the plane had hit trouble moments after taking off, with speculation that the pilot had not reached a high enough speed on the runway. It veered to the left and crashed on the banks of the Volga River, a few hundred metres away. Video footage from moments after the crash showed the blackened fuselage engulfed in flames.

Russian media named 26-year-old Alexander Galimov, a player on Russia's national ice hockey team, as one of two survivors. He was in intensive care last night, with burns to 80 per cent of his body. The Yaroslavl team also included players from Germany, Sweden and Slovakia. It is believed that the whole of the squad was on board, although an official list of victims has not yet been released. The opening match of the league season, in the central Russian city of Ufa, was halted just after the start when news of the crash filtered through.

The league's chairman came on to the ice and informed fans, in a voice shaking with emotion, that the players felt unable to continue. The thousands of spectators held a minute's silence. Many of them were in tears.

The Yak-42 is a medium-range three-engined jet that was produced in the mid-1970s and can carry up to 120 passengers. It is mainly used by small airlines in Russia and other former Soviet countries. The aircraft involved in yesterday's crash was built in 1993 and operated by a private leasing company. Reports suggested it was due for a safety inspection and overhaul next month.

Several tragedies blamed on ageing transport infrastructure have hit Russia in recent months. In June,a Tupolev-134 crashed in Petrozavodsk, killing 47 people, while in July six died when a small Antonov jet attempted a crash landing on the River Ob in Siberia.

The summer's worst incident came when a Bulgarian cruise ship sank on the Volga near Kazan, killing more than 120.

President Dmitry Medvedev has vowed to impose stringent security checks and promised to ground ageing Soviet-era planes, starting from next year. However it is unclear where small regional airlines would obtain funds to purchase new aircraft.

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