Eight survivors of a Russian plane crash that killed 44 people were in a critical condition yesterday, as the country came to terms with another tragedy involving an ageing Soviet Tupelov aircraft.
The 31-year-old Tupolev 134 was coming in to land in thick fog at the small airport outside the city of Petrozavodsk a few minutes before midnight on Monday. The aircraft crash-landed on a nearby road, careered into woodland and caught fire as the fuselage broke into pieces.
Of the 44 people killed, four had dual US and Russian citizenship, while there were four other foreigners on board. The rest of the victims were Russian, including a football referee who officiated at games in the country's premier league. The eight survivors were dragged from the burning wreckage by locals who scrambled to the scene.
Among those who made it out alive were a mother and her two children and one of the aircraft's nine crew. Four survivors were flown to Moscow for treatment yesterday, while the others remained in local hospitals.
The plane belonged to RusAir, a small Russian carrier that flies internal routes. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, dozens of small airlines sprang up in Russia, many of which only have a handful of planes. Poor safety checks, difficult weather conditions and ageing planes lead to frequent accidents. Airlines are gradually augmenting their fleets with Boeings and Airbuses, and a new medium-range Russian airliner has been designed by the Russian firm Sukhoi. The national carrier Aeroflot removed all Tupolevs from its fleet in 2009, but the smaller companies still fly them.
The aircraft has been involved in 20 fatal crashes since 1971. In April last year a Tupolev 154 carrying the Polish president and other senior officials came down in thick fog near the Russian city of Smolensk, killing everyone on board.
It is unclear if the pilot attempted to land the aircraft on the road or simply missed the runway. Air safety officials said there was no sign of fire or explosion aboard the aircraft prior to the crash
The crash "could have been caused by pilot error," said Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, who was in France along with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and other top Russian officials to promote Russian aviation companies at the Paris Air Show. The black box data recorders have been found at the scene.
Mr Putin, and President Dmitry Medvedev, expressed their condolences, and said compensation of 1 million roubles (£22,000) per passenger would be paid.