Several children among 170 dead in a Russian airliner crash

SUKHA BALKA, Ukraine – A Russian passenger jet crashed during a thunderstorm just minutes after sending a distress signal yesterday, killing all 170 people on board, including dozens of children.

Emergency officials said preliminary information led them to believe that weather – not terrorism – caused the Pulkovo Airlines’ Tu-154 to plummet to the ground in what was the third passenger plane crash involving Russia’s aviation industry this year.

“Nobody survived,” Mykhaylo Korsakov, spokesman for the Donetsk department of the Emergency Situations Ministry, told The Associated Press.

Ukrainian officials said a storm with high winds, driving rain and lightning was raging through the region at the time. Russia’s Emergency Situations Ministry spokeswoman Irina Andrianova, citing information from her Ukrainian counterparts, said the plane was likely hit by lightning.

Korsakov said the pilot asked to make an emergency landing before disappearing from the radar screens at around 2:30 p.m.

The Tu-154 was en route from the Russian Black Sea resort of Anapa – a holiday destination popular with families – to St. Petersburg when it ran into trouble. Two minutes after the crew sent a distress signal, it dropped off the radar, said Russian emergency official Yulia Stadnikova.

Residents of Sukha Balka, a village north of Donetsk and some 400 miles east of Kiev, found part of the plane’s tail section and still-burning pieces of debris in a swampy field. Television footage showed scorched, smoldering land covered in small pieces of wreckage. Thick white smoke hung over the debris.

Of the 170 people on board, 45 were children, Pulkovo Airlines deputy director Anatoly Samoshin told reporters at the St. Petersburg airport. The list of passengers, most of whom were from St. Petersburg, appeared to include many families.

Investigators were searching for the flight data recorders commonly called black boxes.

Samoshin said the pilot decided to climb about 3,300 feet to try to get above the storm. But as the plane ascended from 29,500 to 36,000 feet, the pilot sent the first distress signal. Later, the pilot sent two more distress signals, the last from 9,800 feet, he said.

Ukraine Emergency Situations Ministry spokesman Igor Krol told AP that a fire broke out on the plane at 32,800 feet and the crew decided to try to make an emergency landing.

“The only known fact is that the weather was bad, there was a strong thunderstorm and poor visibility,” Ukrainian emergency official Leonid Kastorsky told Russia’s NTV at the site of the crash.

The crash occurred just two days before the second anniversary of near-simultaneous explosions on two planes over Russia. Those explosions, which killed 90 people, were blamed on Chechen terrorists.

The crash “was not a terrorist attack,” said Leonid Belyayev, acting director of Russia’s Emergency Situations Ministry in St. Petersburg.

The 16-year-old plane had flown 5,600 miles since its last maintenance checkup, and was not immediately due for another check, Samoshin said. Pulkovo is among Russia’s largest airlines.

The plane “was falling down like a petal,” one unidentified woman told Russia’s Channel One, waving her hand from side to side. “It was floating, it circled around, then it went down and then there immediately was an explosion – and smoke started rising.”

Zhenya Donets, a 16-year-old villager, said he saw the plane hang in the air for a moment, before corkscrewing to the ground.

“There were fragments of the plane and bodies were lying among them. There were children there too. Many bodies were burning, we tried to put the fire out, but all people were already dead.,” he said.

The crash was the third major incident involving Russia’s aviation industry this year. It came less than two months after an Airbus A-310 of the Russian airline S7 skidded off a runway and burst into flames on July 9 in the Siberian city of Irkutsk, killing 124 people.

On May 3, an A-320 of the Armenian airline Armavia crashed into the Black Sea while trying to land in the Russian resort city of Sochi in rough weather, killing all 113 people aboard.