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Russia says focus not on terrorism in plane crash probe

UPDATED: Sun., Dec. 25, 2016

A woman lights candles are placed in memory of victims of the crashed plane in the center of Sochi, Russia, Sunday, Dec. 25, 2016. A Tu-154 operated by the Russian Defense Ministry en route to Syria crashes into the Black Sea minutes after takeoff from Sochi. Everybody aboard the plane are thought to have perished and the cause of the crash is not immediately known. (Viktor Klyushin / AP)
A woman lights candles are placed in memory of victims of the crashed plane in the center of Sochi, Russia, Sunday, Dec. 25, 2016. A Tu-154 operated by the Russian Defense Ministry en route to Syria crashes into the Black Sea minutes after takeoff from Sochi. Everybody aboard the plane are thought to have perished and the cause of the crash is not immediately known. (Viktor Klyushin / AP)
By Vladimir Isachenkov and Veronika Silchenko Associated Press

SOCHI, Russia – A pilot error or a technical fault is likely to be the cause of Sunday’s plane crash over the Black Sea, the Russian transport minister said on Monday.

All 84 passengers and eight crew members on the Russian military’s Tu-154 plane are believed to have died when it crashed two minutes after taking off in good weather from the southern Russian city of Sochi. The passengers included dozens of singers in Russia’s world-famous military choir.

More than 3,000 rescue workers on 32 ships – including over 100 divers flown in from across Russia – were searching the crash site at sea and along the shore, the Defense Ministry said. Helicopters, drones and submersibles were being used to help spot bodies and debris.

Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov said in televised remarks on Monday morning that terrorism was not among the main theories, and that authorities are looking into a possible technical fault or a pilot error.

Several experts noted factors that could suggest a terror attack, such as the crew’s failure to report any malfunction and the fact that plane debris was scattered over a wide area.

The plane, which originated from Moscow’s military airport Chkalovsky and stopped in Sochi for refueling, was taking the Defense Ministry’s choir, the Alexandrov Ensemble, to perform at a New Year’s concert at the Russian air base in Syria’s coastal province of Latakia.

Those on board also included nine Russian journalists and a Russian doctor famous for her work in war zones and helping homeless people.

Sokolov said the government sees no need to heighten security measures at Russian airports.

Emergency crews found fragments of the plane about 1 mile from shore, and by Monday morning, rescue teams had recovered 11 bodies. A plane with bodies from the crash has landed in Moscow where the remains will be identified, Sokolov said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin went on television to declare Monday a nationwide day of mourning.

“We will conduct a thorough investigation into the reasons and will do everything to support the victims’ families,” Putin said.

The Black Sea search area – which covered about 4 square miles – was made more difficult by underwater currents that carried debris and body fragments into the open sea. Sokolov said the plane’s flight recorders did not have radio beacons, so locating them on the seabed was going to be challenging.

The Tu-154 is a Soviet-built three-engine airliner designed in the late 1960s. More than 1,000 have been built, and they have been used extensively in Russia and worldwide. The plane that crashed Sunday was built in 1983, and underwent factory checkups and maintenance in 2014 and this year, according to the Defense Ministry.

Magomed Tolboyev, a decorated Russian test pilot, said it was clear that all on board had died in the crash.

“There is no chance to survive in such situation,” he said, according to the Interfax news agency.

Senior Russian lawmakers Sunday had ruled out a terror attack, arguing that the military plane was under reliable protection. Security is particularly tight in Sochi, the Black Sea city that hosted the 2014 Winter Games and is regularly visited by Putin, who often receives foreign leaders at his residence there.

But some experts said the crew’s failure to report a malfunction pointed at a possible terror attack.

“Possible malfunctions … certainly wouldn’t have prevented the crew from reporting them,” Vitaly Andreyev, a former senior Russian air traffic controller, told RIA Novosti.

Vadim Lukashevich, an independent aviation expert, told Dozhd TV that the crew’s failure to communicate an equipment failure and the large area over which the plane’s fragments were scattered raises the possibility of an attack.

Alexander Gusak, a former chief of a SWAT team at the main domestic security agency, the FSB, told Dozhd that Russian airports are still vulnerable to terror threats despite security cordons.

“It’s possible to penetrate them. It’s a matter of skills,” he said.

Russian planes have been brought down previously by terror attacks.

In October 2015, a Russian plane carrying mostly Russian tourists back from vacation in Egypt was brought down by a bomb over the Sinai Peninsula, killing all 224 people aboard. Officials said the explosive device was planted in the plane’s luggage compartment. The local affiliate of the Islamic State group claimed responsibility.

In August 2004, two Russian planes were blown up in the skies over Russia on the same day by suicide bombers, killing 89 people. A Chechen warlord claimed responsibility.

In the last year, the Russian military has repeatedly flown Russian singers and artists to perform at Hemeimeem, the main hub for the Russian air campaign in Syria.

The passenger list released by the Defense Ministry included 64 members of the Alexandrov Ensemble, including its leader, Valery Khalilov. The ensemble is the official choir of the Russian military.

The damage to the choir was reported to be devastating. Viktor Yeliseyev, head of the rival choir for the Russian National Guard, said “most singers of the choir have died.”

Also on board was Yelizaveta Glinka, a Russian doctor who has won wide acclaim for her charity work, which has included missions to war zones in eastern Ukraine and Syria. Her foundation said Glinka was accompanying a medical shipment for a hospital in Syria.

“We never feel sure that we will come back alive,” she said when Putin presented her with an award earlier this month. “But we are sure that kindness, compassion and charity are stronger than any weapon.”

The crash shook Russia less than a week after its ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov, was fatally shot in public by a man shouting slogans about the war in Syria, an assassination captured live on video. Since then, Moscow and Ankara have made a show of their willingness to work together and, along with Iran, bring a settlement to the Syrian conflict. On Sunday, Putin received condolences from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Syrian President Bashar Assad.

In recent years, Russian airlines have replaced their Tu-154s with more modern planes, but the military and other Russian government agencies have continued to use them. While noisy and fuel-guzzling, the plane is popular with crews that appreciate its maneuverability and ruggedness.

“It’s an excellent plane, which has proven its reliability during decades of service,” veteran pilot Oleg Smirnov said.

Still, since 1994, there have been 17 major plane crashes involving the Tu-154 that have killed more than 1,760 people in all. Most resulted from human error.

In the latest previous deadly crash of a Tu-154, a plane carrying Polish President Lech Kaczynski and 95 others crashed in April 2010 while trying to land at a military airport in Smolensk in western Russia, killing everyone on board. Investigations by both Polish and Russian experts blamed pilot error in bad weather, but Polish authorities have launched a new probe.

The Washington Post contributed to this report.

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