A Russian passenger plane crashed last night while another apparently broke up in mid-air minutes later, raising fears of terrorism. All 89 people on board the planes were killed.
Both planes, which had taken off from Moscow's Domodedovo airport, disappeared from radar screens within four minutes of each other at around 7pm yesterday.
Investigators were today reportedly trying to determine whether any explosions had preceded the crashes. At least one of the two planes - which took off around 40 minutes apart - appeared to have issued a possible hijack warning before it crashed.
Russia's main intelligence agency the Federal Security Service said today that initial investigations had found no evidence of terrorism. It said investigators had recovered black box recordings from both planes this morning and that it was looking at other possibilities such as technical failures; the use of poor quality fuel; breaches of fuelling regulations and pilot error.
Authorities said rescuers had found wreckage from one of the aircraft, a Tu-154 jet that had been en route to the Black Sea resort of Sochi, around nine hours after it had disappeared from radar screens over the Rostov region, 600 miles south of Moscow. The Sibir Airlines flight was carrying 46 passengers.
At around the same time that the Sibir flight vanished, a Tu-134 aircraft carrying 43 people crashed in the Tula region, around 125 miles south of Moscow, officials said. The Emergency Situations Ministry later said everybody on board the plane had been killed. The Volga-Aviaexpress flight had been travelling to the southern city of Volgograd, writes The Guardian.
Russia TV's Vesti news programme showed footage of rescue teams scouring a field for bodies of the victims of the Tu-134 passenger plane. Fire-trucks and helicopters were at the scene, near Tula south of Moscow.
The TV devoted its entire midday 10-minute news bulletin to the aftermath of the crashes. It showed emergency telephone numbers for families of the victims to contact.
Vesti interviewed witnesses who described a series of explosions like thunderclaps, as a doomed airliner flew low overhead.
On Russia's NTV news channel, a local man said: "There was this strange noise in the sky, then this torn-up book fell onto our garage," holding up the book with its tattered pages.
TV channels also showed relatives and friends grieving at Domodedovo airport.
Speculation over the causes of the crash peppered all the media accounts of events.
State-owned Radio Russia cited aviation experts as saying the likelihood of a Tupolev airliner simply breaking up in mid-flight was non-existent.
It cited a source at the prestigious Gromov Flight Research Institute, at Moscow's Zhukovskiy air base, as saying recovered debris from the crashed Tu-134 showed "the possibility of a powerful external influence on the fuselage of the plane".
Sibir Airlines, whose Tu-154 plane crashed en route from Moscow to Sochi, said a terrorist attack may well have caused the disaster.
Later it emerged that the Tu-154 had sent an SOS message just before the it went down, not a hijack message. And as events unfolded, Russia's TV and radio media cited the FSB intelligence agency playing down reports of terrorism links, told BBC.
Investigators picked through the scattered wreckage today of two Russian passenger jets that crashed nearly simultaneously Tuesday night after leaving Moscow, and reported that they had found flight data recorders for both flights, officials said.
At least 89 people died in the crashes, according to the latest tally provided by Domodedovo International Airport, from where both planes took off late Tuesday.
As airport security was tightened throughout Russia, it remained unclear whether the crashes were an awful coincidence — a case of two jetliners leaving the same airfield and suffering catastrophic mishaps only minutes apart — or a carefully coordinated terrorist act that originated in Moscow's most modern airport. Russian officials emphasized that the causes for the crashes had not been found, and urged patience and calm.
Earlier in the day the Russian news service Interfax, citing an anonymous official, reported that minutes after the first plane went down, the second jet issued a distress signal indicating it had been hijacked. Then it, too, disappeared from radar.
Mr. Putin, who has been vacationing and working in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, and had ordered the F.S.B., one of the successor agencies to the K.G.B., to investigate the crashes, did not publicly discuss them today.
Wreckage of the first plane, Volga AviaExpress Flight 1303, a Tupolev-134 en route to Volgograd, was found in the Tula region near the village of Kulchaki, about 100 miles south of Moscow, after disappearing from the radar at about 10:56 p.m.
The Domodedovo airport press service said the plane carried 35 passengers and a crew of 8; an official at the scene said the plane carried a crew of 9. Interfax reported that the plane was flown by the airline's general director, whom the company described as an experienced pilot.
Witnesses told authorities that the plane exploded before it crashed. The chief of the region's Ministry of Emergency Situations, Gennady Skachkov, told the RTR television news channel that there had been no distress signals or indications of trouble from the crew before the plane went down.
The second aircraft, Sibir Airlines Flight 1047, a Tupolev-154 bound for Sochi, disappeared from the radar over the Rostov-on-Don region, about 500 miles south of Moscow near Russia's border with Ukraine, minutes after the first jet crashed.
The Sibir Airlines flight carried 38 passengers and 8 crew members, according to the airport press service, reports The New York Times.
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