Officials: Thunderstorms reported in the region when Russian passenger jet crashed in Ukraine

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

SUKHA BALKA, Ukraine -- Pulkovo Airlines Flight 612 was packed with families, tourists and others returning to the Russian city of St. Petersburg after soaking up the sun and salt water on the Black Sea.

Thunderstorms roiled the air space over eastern Ukraine and the pilots of the Tu-154 passenger jet chose to steer higher to avoid the turbulence.

Then something went wrong. The crew sent distress signals. And shortly thereafter, the plane fell to the earth, in the words of one eyewitness, "like a petal."

Ukrainian and Russian emergency officials picked through smoldering wreckage, shredded metal and plastic and the remains of 170 passengers and crew Tuesday, trying to make sense out of the third passenger plane crash involving Russia's aviation industry this year.

"Nobody survived," said Mykhaylo Korsakov, spokesman for the Donetsk department of the Emergency Situations Ministry.

Authorities ruled out terrorism. Ukrainian officials said a storm, accompanied by heavy winds, driving rain and flashes of lightning, was raging through the region at the time.

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

The plane 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.

Both Russian and Ukrainian officials said nothing indicated Tuesday's incident should be blamed on terrorism.

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. It was a terrible sight," he said.

The crash 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.

Russian-made Tu-154s are widely used by Russian airlines for many regional flights.

Associated Press Writer Irina Titova contributed to this report from St. Petersburg.

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