Sunday, December 7, 1997
By VANORA BENNETT, Times Staff Writer
MOSCOW--A huge military cargo jet crashed into a Siberian town Saturday minutes after taking off, flattening an apartment block that housed 108 people, damaging at least three other buildings nearby and setting fire to a residential area in one of Russia’s worst air disasters. Chaos reigned as 1,400 rescue workers in the devastated satellite town on the edge of Irkutsk struggled through the afternoon, in subzero temperatures, to put out the blaze and rescue any survivors. How many people had been killed was unclear, with early estimates varying from 38 to 150.
Through dense smoke, Russian television showed ghostly pictures of blazing cars, smashed apartment windows and rubble, with the plane’s enormous tailpiece rearing up out of one ruined building and towering above it. The craft, an Antonov-124, has the biggest wingspan of any plane in the world, a third bigger than a jumbo jet.
"Look at that tailpiece, standing there like a devil’s monument among the flames and clouds of black smoke. . . . Think of it, it could easily have been my house. It makes my hair stand on end," Sergei Vorontsov, 35, a businessman who lives 500 yards from the disaster area, told The Times by phone. Vorontsov drove as close as he could to the crash site, swarming with firefighters and soldiers. "From what I could see, the plane first took off two upper stories of a four-story building, then completely destroyed another four-story building and set fire to the local orphanage," he said. "Luckily the orphanage is closed, so there were no kids in it. The plane stopped right in front of a nine-story apartment building. Fire hasn’t touched that building, otherwise the death toll would have been much higher." The plane also damaged a three-story school, two wooden apartment buildings and a small shop. Twelve people, including seven children, were being treated for burns and injuries, Itar-Tass news agency said. "It is pretty cold now, about minus 20 degrees [Celsius]. If there were people still alive under the ruins, they must be dead by now," Vorontsov added.
President Boris N. Yeltsin held an urgent Kremlin conference on the situation. "The president has been shaken by what has happened and expresses his deepest condolences," a Kremlin spokesman said.
The Antonov-124 plane crashed at 2:52 p.m., eight minutes after taking off from the Irkutsk aircraft factory with full tanks that can carry 110 tons of fuel. It had been heading for Vladivostok, in the Russian Far East, and then on to Vietnam, with a cargo of two Sukhoi-27 fighter jets. The jets—which at about $100 million each are among the most popular export items in cash-strapped Russia’s aggressive post-Soviet military equipment marketing drive—each weigh about 22 tons. The Antonov-124 can carry up to 165 tons of cargo. Initial explanations for the crash, given to Interfax news agency by officials requesting anonymity, included the failure of the plane’s two left engines at takeoff; a shift in the plane’s center of gravity; an incorrect angle for takeoff; and a suggestion that the plane was overloaded. The exact weight of the Antonov’s load remained unclear late Saturday.
Moscow announced that everyone on board had been killed, but there was confusion over how many people were on board. The Emergencies Ministry said 23 people were on the plane. But the Defense Ministry insisted that 46 were on board: two eightmember crews and 30 passengers. Later, Yeltsin’s advisor on aviation, Marshal Yevgeny Shaposhnikov, said 29 bodies had been recovered from the debris, without making clear whether they had been on the plane or the ground. The plane’s two "black box" flight recorders were reported by Russian TV stations to have been recovered, and the Irkutsk military prosecutor has opened criminal proceedings under Article 351 of the Criminal Code on "Violation of Flight Rules and Flight Preparation." Military investigators were already at work at the crash site. Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin and Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu were among top officials on their way to Irkutsk to handle the crisis.
Saturday’s crash was the worst disaster involving a Russian military plane since an overloaded Antonov-32 plowed into a market in Kinshasa, the capital of what was then Zaire, in January 1996, killing about 300 people. Shaposhnikov admitted that the Russian aviation industry, like many other sectors of the Russian economy, was in crisis, and he blamed its problems on a shortage of funds from the state. A long series of accidents involving ex-Soviet aircraft are generally attributed to cash shortages that have lowered already poor maintenance standards and placed extra pressure on air crews. Aviation officials say 219 people died last year in 43 accidents in Russian airspace. "Generally, our [Russian] aviation is going through a critical time right now," Shaposhnikov told reporters. "All the problems are basically connected with the . . . few hours flown [by pilots], especially in military aviation." Pilots fly less than in Soviet days because of fuel shortages caused by lack of funds. But, Shaposhnikov added, the same plane had flown to Vietnam and back last week and had been in good condition. This was the second catastrophe in the last four days in Russia. On Wednesday, more than 60 people were killed in a gas explosion at a coal mine near another Siberian town, Novokuznetsk. Ignoring the cold, shocked, furious crowds from Irkutsk apartment houses gathered in the smoking ruins on Saturday evening. An Interfax news agency reporter quoted them demanding that local authorities ban flights over residential parts of Irkutsk. Other neighbors were too numbed by the tragedy for anger. "I have never seen such devastation in my city before," 52-year-old pensioner Valentina Baranovskaya, who lives 800 yards from the crash, said in a telephone interview with The Times. Like many other residents, she had been sitting at home watching television after lunch when she felt what seemed like an earthquake—"three distinctive jolts that sounded like dull but heavy explosions, one after another." "Now I know what it is like in a war," she added, her voice trembling. "It’s terrible, just terrible. I will go to church tomorrow and light a candle for the miracle that saved me and my family from this sudden and ugly death." Sergei Loiko of The Times’ Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.