Plane crash in central Russia kills 88

By: AP
By: AP

MOSCOW (AP) -- A passenger jet traveling from Moscow to the Ural Mountains city of Perm crashed near residential buildings as it was preparing to land early Sunday, killing all 88 people aboard, officials said.

There was no indication of terrorism in the crash of the Boeing-737-500, which went down on the outskirts of the city of Perm around 3:15 a.m., said Emergency Situations Ministry spokeswoman Irina Andrianova. Among those killed was a popular general who commanded troops in Chechnya.

The crash scorched a section of railroad track and scattered paper, clothing, life preservers and engine parts for several hundred yards. Sections of the plane's fuselage reading "Aeroflot" and "Boeing" lay askew on the rails.

The damage shut down part of the Trans-Siberian railway, said Alexander Burataeva, a spokesman for the national railroad company.

Flight 821, operated by an Aeroflot subsidiary, carried 82 passengers and six crew members, Aeroflot said in a statement. It said among those killed were citizens from the United States, France, Turkey, Switzerland, Germany, Italy and Latvia. The U.S. Embassy in Moscow said it has not yet been able to verify that the person listed as an American is a citizen.

The plane was on its approach to land amid low cloudcover when it crashed into an unpopulated area of the city, just a few hundred yards from residential buildings. Aeroflot officials said the plane was circling at about 3,600 feet in "difficult weather conditions" when it lost contact with ground dispatchers.

The most likely cause of the crash was technical failure, Vladimir Markin, a spokesman for the federal prosecutors' Investigative Committee, said in televised comments. Investigators have found the planes' "black box" flight recorders and were working to analyze them.

"I felt an explosion, it threw me off the bed... My daughter ran in from the next room crying 'What happened? Has a war begun or what?'" a woman in Perm who was not identified told Vesti-24 TV. "My neighbors, other witnesses told me that it was burning in the air, it looked like a comet. It hit the ground opposite the next house, trailing like fireworks in the sky."

Officials said there were no deaths on the ground.

Pavel Shevchenko, a 36-year-old Perm resident who lives just 330 yards from the site of the crash, said he was awoken by an explosion and ran outside. He said debris was scattered around the area, along a section of tracks destroyed by the impact of the plane, but the heat from the flames kept him from getting closer.

He said a neighbor who witnessed the crash told him the plane hit the ground sharply - at a 30 or 40 degree angle. He said he feared his acquaintances or friends could be among the dead.

"It's awful. There's just no words to describe it. Perm is a small town, everybody knows everybody else here," Shevchenko told The Associated Press.

Perm is about 750 miles east of Moscow.

Russia and the other former Soviet republics have some of the world's worst air traffic safety records, according to the International Air Transport Association.

Experts have blamed weak government controls, poor pilot training and a cost-cutting mentality among many carriers that affects safety.

No problems were reported with the 15-year-old jet when it was last inspected at the beginning of 2008, Aeroflot deputy director Lev Koshlyakov said.

"Aeroflot has a good reputation in the field of safety," Koshlyakov told reporters at Moscow's Sheremyetevo airport, from where the flight had departed. The incident is "a hard blow for our reputation."

Aeroflot director Valery Okulov said the company would cut its ties to the subsidiary that ran the flight. The subsidiary, Aeroflot-Nord, will not be allowed to use the Aeroflot brand name and code, he said.

"When it comes to our reputation and image, we paid too great a price," Okulov said at a later news conference at the Moscow airport.

The subsidiary is majority-owned by Aeroflot but has its own fleet.

Okulov said relatives of the passengers that died will be offered free tickets if they want to fly to the site of the crash. Eighteen relatives flew Sunday from Moscow.

Among those reported killed was Gennady Troshev, 61, a popular army general who commanded troops in Chechnya. Human rights activists had accused him of tolerating rampant abuses in the war-ravaged republic.

He was dismissed from his post in 2002 by then-President Vladimir Putin after he publicly refused to accept a transfer during a power struggle within Russia's armed forces.

Troshev was traveling to Perm to attend a wrestling competition, news agencies said.

Sunday's crash was the second involving a Boeing 737 in the former Soviet Union in the past month. A Boeing flying from the Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan to Iran crashed shortly after takeoff on Aug. 24, killing 64 of the 90 people on board.

The pilot of that plane has been detained by prosecutors in connection with the investigation, officials said this week.

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Associated Press writers David Nowak contributed to this report.

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