Russian Plane Crashes in Siberia

A Russian airliner plunged into a wooded meadow in Siberia and burned up after unsuccessful attempts to land in the city of Irkutsk today, killing all 145 people on board.

Aviation officials were examining the two black box flight recorders from the Tu-154 jet, said Vasily Yurchuk, spokesman for the Emergency Situations Ministry. Another spokesman said 143 bodies or fragments of bodies had been found. Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu, who flew to the site, said the plane's three engines may have failed for unknown reasons, Russian television reports said.

"It is so hard to comprehend how it could happen ... based on an elementary knowledge of aerodynamics. It is a weird accident," Shoigu told reporters on the meadow, which was littered with smoking fuselage. He said the plane was at an altitude of 2,800 feet when it suddenly made a 180-degree turn and crashed.

Searching for Signs of Explosives

Security officials did not rule out a terrorist act and were searching for signs of explosives, the Interfax news agency said. The 15-year-old plane, belonging to the Vladivostokavia airline, crashed about 18 miles outside Irkutsk, which is about 2,600 miles east of Moscow. The area lies between Irkutsk and enormous Lake Baikal. There were no reports of casualties on the ground. The plane was carrying 136 passengers and nine crew members, Yurchuk said. But officials said the number aboard could be higher because of Russian airlines' widespread practice of taking unticketed passengers. Vladimir Rabezhin, deputy manager of Vladivostokavia, said there were 12 foreigners, probably from China, aboard the airplane, ITAR-Tass said. The passenger list was not to be made public until later in the day.

Long, Sad Night

Relatives and friends of the passengers spent a harrowing, tearful night in the airports at Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok. When they heard the announcement of no survivors, most went home or flew to Irkutsk to identify bodies, with the promise of $414 in insurance payments from the airline, Interfax said. The plane disappeared from radar screens at 2:10 a.m. local time, bound from Yekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains to Vladivostok, the major port on Russia's Pacific Coast. The plane tried twice to land in Irkutsk, where it was to refuel and drop off some passengers, and crashed on the third attempt, Russian television stations reported. There were no immediate details on the problem that prevented the plane from landing. A Tu-154 jet crashed on takeoff from Irkutsk in 1994, killing 124 people. The plane reportedly was overloaded. In 1997, an An-124 cargo plane crashed into an Irkutsk apartment building, killing 65 people.

Soviet Collapse Led to Safety Decline

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, civil aviation declined as hundreds of small airlines were spun off from the one-time monolithic Aeroflot. Russia and other former Soviet republics were plagued with crashes as aircraft maintenance and supervision deteriorated. But there have been fewer crashes in recent years. Russian President Vladimir Putin was monitoring developments in the crash from the Kremlin. He ordered an investigation, headed by Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov, who also led the investigation of last year's catastrophic sinking of the nuclear submarine Kursk. The most recent major crash involving a Russian plane was in October 2000, when an Il-18 plane transporting Russian soldiers crashed in Georgia, killing 83 people.

3-Engine Jet Common in Eastern Europe, China

The three-engine Tu-154, first put into commercial service in 1972, is the workhorse of Russia's domestic airlines and widely used throughout the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, as well as in China. A Tu-154 belonging to China Southwest Airlines crashed in China in 1999, killing all 61 people aboard. A German-owned Tu-154 collided with a U.S. Air Force C-141 off the coast of Namibia in 1998, killing 33 people, and in 1997 a Tajik Tu-154 crashed en route to the United Arab Emirates, killing 85.