Plane Crash Becomes Fireball Russian Transport Jet Slams Into Housing Shortly After Takeoff; Scores Feared Dead

A huge military cargo jet crashed into a Siberian town on Saturday minutes after taking off, flattening an apartment block that houses 108 people, damaging at least three other buildings nearby and setting fire to a residential area in one of Russia’s worst air disasters.

Chaos reigned as 700 rescue workers in the devastated satellite town on the edge of Irkutsk struggled through the afternoon, in subzero temperatures, to put out the blaze and rescue any survivors. How many people had been killed was unclear, with early estimates varying from 56 to about 150.

Through dense smoke Russian television showed ghostly pictures of blazing cars, gutted apartment windows and rubble, with the enormous ruin of the plane tailpiece rearing up out of one ruined building and towering above it.

“Look at that tailpiece, standing there like a devil’s monument among the flames and clouds of black smoke. … Think of it, it could easily have been my house. It makes my hair stand on end,” Sergei Vorontsov, 35, a businessman who lives 500 yards from the disaster area, told the Los Angeles Times by phone.

“From what I could see, the plane first took off two upper stories of a four-story building, then completely destroyed another four-story building and set fire to the local orphanage,” Vorontsov said. “Luckily the orphanage is closed, so there were no kids in it. The plane stopped right in front of a nine-story apartment building. Fire hasn’t touched that building, otherwise the death toll would have been much higher.”

The plane also damaged a three-story school, two wooden apartment buildings and a small shop. Twelve people, including seven children, were being treated for burns and injuries, Itar-Tass news agency said.

President Boris N. Yeltsin held an urgent Kremlin conference on the situation.

The Antonov-124 plane crashed at 2:52 p.m., eight minutes after taking off from the Irkutsk aircraft factory with full fuel tanks.

It had been heading for Vladivostok, in the Russian Far East, and then on to Vietnam, with a cargo of two Sukhoi-27 fighter jets on board.

Initial explanations for the crash, given to Interfax news agency by officials requesting anonymity, included the failure of the plane’s two left engines at takeoff, a shift in the plane’s center of gravity, an incorrect angle for takeoff, and a suggestion that the plane was overloaded.

The exact weight of the Antonov’s load remained unclear late Saturday.

Moscow announced that everyone on board had been killed, but there was confusion over how many people were on board.

The Emergencies Ministry said there were a total of 23 people on the plane. But the Defense Ministry insisted that there were 46 victims on board: two eight-member crews, and 30 passengers.

Later, Yeltsin’s adviser on aviation, Marshal Yevgeny Shaposhnikov, said 29 bodies had been recovered from the debris, without making clear whether they were victims from the plane or the ground.

The Antonov-124 - which has the biggest wingspan of any plane in the world, a third bigger than a jumbo jet - can carry up to 132 tons of cargo.

The plane’s two “black box” flight recorders were reported by Russian television stations to have been recovered, and the Irkutsk military prosecutor has opened criminal proceedings under Article 351 of the Criminal Code on “Violation of Flight Rules and Flight Preparation.”

Military investigators were at work at the crash site.

Tass said the military prosecutor’s office had so far refrained from any comments on the possible causes of the accident.

Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin and Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu are among top officials on their way to Irkutsk to handle the crisis.

Saturday’s crash was the worst disaster involving a Russian military plane since an overloaded Antonov-32 plowed into a market in Zaire’s capital, Kinshasha, in January 1996, killing about 300 people.

“I have never seen such devastation in my city before,” 52-year-old pensioner Valentina Baranovskaya, who lives 800 yards from the crash, said in a telephone interview with the Los Angeles Times.

Like many other residents, she had been sitting at home watching television after lunch when she felt what seemed like an earthquake - “three distinctive jolts that sounded like dull but heavy explosions, one after another.”

“Now I know what it is like in a war,” she added, her voice trembling. “It’s terrible, just terrible. I will go to church tomorrow and light a candle for the miracle that saved me and my family from this sudden and ugly death.”

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