PERM, September 14 – An Aeroflot Boeing-737 jet crashed near a Ural mountains city Sunday killing all 88 passengers and crew on board, after reportedly catching fire in the sky, the airline said.
There were at least 20 foreigners and seven children on the plane which came down as it prepared to land in Perm on a flight from Moscow. The wreckage cut off the Trans-Siberian railway.
"It was burning while still in the sky and it looked like a falling comet," one female witness told Russia’s Vesti-24 television.
The jet narrowly missed a main residential area as it fell shortly after 5:00 am (2300 GMT Saturday).
Aeroflot confirmed there were no survivors and said the dead included nine people from Azerbaijan, five from Ukraine and one each from France, Germany, Italy, Latvia, Switzerland, and Turkey.
One passenger was also said to be American but US officials were reportedly checking that information.
Among the victims was General Gennady Troshev, a former top commander of Russia’s war in Chechnya and advisor to ex-president Vladimir Putin, Interfax news agency reported, citing Russia’s transport ministry.
"As the plane was coming in for landing, it lost communication at the height of 1,100 metres (yards) and air controllers lost its blip," an Aeroflot statement said.
"The airplane was found within Perm’s city limits completely destroyed and on fire," it added.
Witnesses described watching the plane pass over their houses before seeing it explode, sending massive chunks of burning wreckage flying to the ground.
"The plane was flying over our building, falling, and it hit the ground about 200 metres (650 feet) away and broke up," a local resident, who only gave his name as Maxim, told AFP.
"It blew up in the air, the pieces fell on the ground. The main part containing the passengers fell in a dacha (country house) area with gardens. It didn’t hit the main residential area," he added.
Russia’s Vesti-24 television channel showed smoking wreckage strewn across a wooded area and investigators combing through the dark with flashlights. Later in daylight, the pictures showed charred debris and the clothing and possessions of victims scattered on the ground.
An emergency situations ministry source quoted by RIA Novosti news agency said it was possible three people who bought a ticket for the ill-fated flight did not get on board.
The wreckage was strewn over some four square kilometers (1.56 square miles), officials said.
The cause of the accident was not immediately clear, though a source quoted by RIA Novosti suggested that an engine failure could have sparked flames on board and led to the crash.
Both black box flight recorders were found in the wreckage, Interfax news agency reported, citing investigators.
Aeroflot spokesman Lev Koshlyakov told journalists the plane had been given "a full technical inspection" early this year and was judged to be in a "proper condition."
The airline set up a crisis centre at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo-1 airport and in Perm for relatives of the victims.
It also organised an afternoon flight for relatives wanting to travel to the Urals city and pledged compensation of up to two million rubles (some 80,000 dollars or 55,000 euros) for each victim.
President Dmitry Medvedev offered his condolences to the grieving families and Russia’s Transport Minister Igor Levitin was dispatched to Perm to personally head the probe into what happened.
Explosives experts from the Russian defence ministry would be among the investigators, RIA Novosti reported, although there was no indication from officials that the crash was anything other than an accident.
Plane wreckage on the tracks led to the closure of a stretch of the Trans-Siberian railway between Perm and Yekaterinburg, police said.
The plane had been leased by Aeroflot from a Dublin-based company Pinewatch Limited in July until March 2013, the airline said. It was not clear how old the aircraft was.
Last year, 33 Russian aviation accidents left 318 dead — a sixfold increase over 2005 — with experts pointing to major faults in the training of crews as well as Russia’s ageing fleet of passenger jets.
An air safety commission announced in January that the average age of the country’s international airliners was 18 years, and its regional jets 30 years.