Fifty-two Russian children headed for a youth festival in Spain were among the 71 people killed when a chartered airliner and a German cargo plane collided at 36,000 feet over southern Germany, officials said today.
Swiss air traffic controllers blamed the accident on the pilot of the Russian Tupolev 154 plane bound from Moscow to Barcelona, saying the pilot did not respond to orders to descend until it was too late.
The head of Moscow's Domodedovo airport, from which the Bashkirian Airlines jet originated, refuted the explanation, telling Russia's RTR television: "All the sources of the accident are to be found in the skies over Europe. I am 100 percent certain of this."
The two planes collided above the picturesque Lake Constance late Monday night, creating a massive fireball in the night sky. Flaming debris and body parts were scattered over a 20-mile swath in one of Germany's most-exclusive resort areas, setting fire to a school, several buildings and a farm.
Huge chunks of metal, the size of trucks, fell within yards of some buildings. "It's remarkable, almost a miracle," said one official, "that no one on the ground was killed or injured."
One of the first people on the scene was Dirk Diestel, a local photographer. "I heard what sounded like thunder," he said, "but it wouldn't stop."
"I looked up and saw four or five giant fireballs shooting directly over me."
All aboard the two planes, which collided above the lake near the German-Swiss border, are presumed dead. There was a two-man crew on the German plane. The Russian plane carried a 12-member crew and five adult passengers in addition to the youngsters.
"At such an altitude, it would be a wonder if anyone survived," said Wolfgang Wenzel, a police spokesman for the German state of Baden-Wuerttemberg.
Rescue workers using helicopters equipped with infrared cameras and sonar-equipped boats on Lake Constance worked through the night. They had recovered 28 bodies by evening, reported The Associated Press.
Investigators said they located both planes' flight-data recorders and the cockpit voice recorder of the German cargo jet, a Boeing 757 operated by global shipping company DHL that was en route from Bahrain to Brussels, Belgium.
Tears in Russia
The youths aboard the Russian plane were from the political elite families of Russia's oil-rich Bashkortostan region, headed to a festival organized by UNESCO, the U.N. science, education and cultural body.
They were the best students at the UNESCO-affiliated school in Ufa, the regional capital, Reuters said.
Many of the youths had the same last names, prompting speculation that some families had lost more than one member. Russian officials at the emergency situations ministry and the tour agency that helped organize the trip told Reuters eight of the children were younger than 12 and that 44 were between 12 and 16 years old.
At the airport in Ufa, grieving parents of the youths were attempting to catch flights to Germany as Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his condolences to the relatives of the victims.
The youths were supposed to have left Saturday for Spain, but missed their connection. Bashkirian Airlines then organized a special flight to Barcelona, airline officials said, so that the youths would not miss the UNESCO festival.
"If only they had flown on time, nothing would have happened," a woman who was identified as the mother of 11-year-old Bulat Biglov told Russia's NTV television. She was in tears.
Din Uzhin, a group leader for the students, told The Associated Press he was supposed to have flown with them but did not get his Spanish visa and stayed behind in Moscow.
"The parents of the children are calling nonstop asking whether I know anything about the fate of their children," he said. "And I have to say time and again: Your children were on that plane."
Today, Wednesday and Thursday were set aside for mourning in Bashkortostan.
Human Error Likely
Investigators are looking at pilot error as a possible cause of the collision.
Swiss officials, who control the air space in the border region, said Swiss air traffic controllers had told the Russian airline to descend or dive before the collision, but the Russian pilot reacted too late.
Anton Maag, chief of the air traffic control tower in Zurich, initially said the Russian plane began to descend only after a third request from air traffic controllers. But the Swiss revised their account after the German government agency for air accident investigations said the Russian pilot was given only about 50 seconds warning to change altitude and reacted after a second notice.
The German account of the incident said the Russian pilot changed course about 25 seconds before the collision. Maag said the warning "wasn't irresponsible but fairly tight."
Amid reports that the Russian pilots may have had poor command of the English language, Russian aviation officials denied the speculation and said the pilot had years of experience and was fluent in English.
The director of Bashkirian Airlines, Nikolai Odegov, said Swiss air traffic controllers were to blame for the accident, the Interfax news agency reported this evening.
"My theory is that it is the fault of the air traffic controllers, they put the planes on the same path," Odegov said. "There were no reasons to say that the pilots didn't handle the plane properly."
Experts were also looking at the possibility that ground controllers had entered incorrect data for the flight paths, or that one of the two planes had failed to follow its approved flight path.
Tupolev is an old Soviet aircraft manufacturer that made large transport planes in the style of 727s. Tu-154s are one of the most common Russian planes used for medium-range flights.
Russian aviation sources said the Tu-154 in Monday's collision was fitted with the latest navigational and communications equipment, including a Dutch-made collision avoidance system, and met with international safety standards.
While Tu-154s have had several accidents in the past few years, it is still not clear how much of the blame for these accidents could be attributed to bad maintenance. In February, an Iranian-owned Tu-154 crashed in Iran, killing all 119 aboard.
Midair collisions involving larger planes are very rare. There have been less than 20 since 1960.
Five years ago in India, a Saudi Arabian airliner had just taken off from the New Delhi airport when it collided with a cargo plane that was landing, killing 349 people.
ABCNEWS' Mike Lee in Germany and Claudine Weinbrenn in London contributed to this report.