52 Kids Among Dead in Midair Collision

ByABC News
July 2, 2002, 2:26 AM

U E B E R L I N G E N, Germany, July 2 -- 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.