Russia's lost heroes: Nation mourns a sporting tragedy

Vigil held for ice hockey team wiped out in air crash

Yaroslavi

Occasionally, a wail of despair rang through the air, but mostly they stood in silence. Throughout the day yesterday, thousands of fans of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl made their way to the ice hockey team's stadium to pay their respects, their faces set grimly in expressions of shock. They carried bunches of red carnations and lit candles in memory of the hockey squad, which was almost entirely obliterated in a plane crash on Wednesday afternoon.

The Yak-42 aircraft that crashed shortly after take-off was carrying 45 people, 38 of whom were affiliated to Lokomotiv as players, coaches or other staff. Only two survived, both in an extremely serious condition, and were flown to Moscow for treatment yesterday. In an extraordinarily dark coincidence, the crash came the day before a showpiece international forum attended by several world leaders was to open in Yaroslavl. The venue? Arena 2000, the home stadium of the Lokomotiv side. The crash unsurprisingly overshadowed the forum, which nevertheless continued as planned, with the thousands of mourners outside kept away from the official entrance by a police cordon.

Before attending the forum, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited the crash site and held a televised meeting with top officials there. "The government has to take a very tough decision. We cannot go on like this," he said, calling for a "radical reduction" in the number of air companies operating in Russia. There are dozens of small airlines in the country, many running just one or two antiquated jets.

However, the Yak-42 involved in this week's crash was relatively young, made in 1993, and was chartered from a private leasing company. Mr Medvedev has already called for a ban on certain Soviet-era aircraft starting from next year, after a number of fatal crashes in recent months, but there is scepticism about how remote routes will be serviced if planes such as the Tupolev 134 and 154, and the Yak-40 and 42 are taken out of service. Around 100 Yak-42 planes are in operation in Russia, mainly flying short- and medium-distance routes. The plane has a maximum capacity of 120 passengers.

There was a certain irony in the fact that Mr Medvedev, who has made modernising Russia the cornerstone of his presidency, gave what could turn out to be one of the last major speeches of his tenure in a venue tainted by another tragedy apparently caused by Russia's ailing infrastructure. The president has not confirmed yet whether he will stand for a second term in elections due in March. Many analysts expect the powerful Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, to make a return to the Kremlin. Mr Medvedev addressed the forum yesterday wearing a black tie, and asked all delegates to observe a moment of silence, but after a brief word on the crash, went on to give his speech on multiculturalism as planned.

Overnight on Wednesday there were reports of fans shouting "down with the forum!" and suggesting that the tragedy might not have occurred if the airport had not been deluged with VIP airliners transporting forum guests. Some of those outside yesterday also expressed anger at the Russian elite. "What do we need this forum for anyway?" railed 24-year-old Sergei Krylov, who was wearing a Lokomotiv hockey jersey. "They come here and close off half the roads every year. And now our city's heroes are dead and they continue talking shit in there; in the home of our team," he said, gesturing angrily towards the arena.

The predominant mood was sorrow rather than rage, however. One girl wearing an autographed replica shirt wept inconsolably. "Look, I've got five players' signatures on my shirt and four of them are dead now," she wailed, brushing away further questions. Many of the mourners were teenagers, but there were fans of all stripes present, from a young mother clutching a baby in one arm and gently waving a scrunched-up scarf with the other, to an elderly man in a wheelchair brought along by his family. A group of teenage girls wore crop tops and low-cut jeans, with "Lokomotiv" and multi-coloured hearts daubed onto their midriffs in marker pen. Three young boys with matching mullets and Lokomotiv flags draped over their shoulders simply stared into the middle distance, their eyes red from crying.

By afternoon there was a veritable mountain of carnations outside the stadium, with a steady stream of mourners adding to it all the time. Some left red, white and blue Lokomotiv scarves, while others had drawn pictures or written poems. Thousands of candles flickered weakly in the drizzle.

The ill-fated flight was bound for Minsk in Belarus, where Lokomotiv were due to play their first game of the season, against Dinamo Minsk, yesterday. Among the dead were several foreigners, including the Lokomotiv coach Brad McCrimmon, a Canadian and veteran of the National Hockey League. Three Czech players and one Swede also died, as well as players from Latvia and Belarus. Meanwhile 20-year-old attacking player Maksim Zyuzyakin was counting his lucky stars – he was told just hours before take-off that he would not be playing and thus didn't need to fly with the team.

Details began to emerge yesterday of the last moments of some of those who were not so lucky. The 33-year-old Pavel Trakhanov called his wife Ekaterina just before take-off to tell her how much he loved her, she told the Russian website Life News. "He laughed and joked a lot, and asked to speak to our son... He said 'We're already taking off, I'll call you from Minsk, I love you lots.'" Minutes later, he was dead.

It is not yet clear what caused the Yak-42 to crash. Russian television aired gruesome animation recreating the probable lead-up to the accident based on eyewitness accounts and sources at the airport. The plane failed to take off in time, travelling 400 metres on grass beyond the end of the runway on its rear wheels, with nose in the air. Unable to get the requisite lift, the plane crashed into a communications tower before veering to the left and plunging into the ground on the banks of the Volga River, where it burst into flames. Throughout the day yesterday, divers continued to drag bodies from the river, some of them still belted into their aeroplane seats.

Russian hockey authorities cancelled 19 matches due to be played before next Monday, after abandoning the first game of the season, which took place on Wednesday evening in the city of Ufa, halfway through as news of the crash broke. However, authorities vowed that when the league did get underway, Lokomotiv would take part. All the other clubs in the league offered to donate a player to Lokomotiv to help the side rise again after the tragedy, and there were reports that several ex-players and Yaroslavl natives had offered their services to the club.

Lokomotiv was founded in 1949, during the twilight of Joseph Stalin's rule, and was given its name because it is the official team of the Railways Ministry. The side has been one of the most successful in Russia and was considered one of the leading contenders to take the league title this season.

"This is the first time in my life I've ever cried. It's devastating," said 19-year-old Alexander Pashkov, as he laid flowers outside the stadium yesterday evening. "But we'll come back from this. Loko will live on. And we'll win the league."

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