At Least 48 Killed in Russia Plane Crash

By Nikolai Pavlov

IRKUTSK, Russia (Reuters) - Rescuers digging through charred and frozen rubble Sunday found the remains of 48 people killed when a huge military cargo plane crashed into an apartment building in the Siberian town of Irkutsk.

Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu told reporters at the scene that some people were still unaccounted for and up to 62 people may have been killed in Saturday's crash.

Shoigu said workers battling temperatures as low as minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit had found the data recording equipment from the Antonov-124 early Sunday.

"We have found the black boxes and they are now on their way to Moscow," he said.

The cause of the crash, which set ablaze several buildings including an orphanage where two children were killed, was not immediately known.

But Interfax news agency quoted sources in Irkutsk, about 3,000 miles east of Moscow, as saying the crew had managed to get out information that two engines had failed just before the aircraft crashed soon after takeoff.

Rescue officials said workers had recovered 42 bodies and the partial remains of six other victims. Fifteen people had been taken to hospital in Irkutsk, a city of 650,000 people five time zones east of Moscow and just north of Mongolia.

Two of the wounded were treated and released, although a five-year-old boy was in critical condition and two women had serious injuries, said Colonel Yevgeny Kozlov, a duty emergency ministry officer.

Workers were still looking for survivors but it was unlikely anyone could have endured such conditions overnight.

"The worst prognosis is that 62 people are dead. This is a preliminary figure," Shoigu said.

An air traffic control official said the Antonov-124, one of the world's largest planes with a wing span a third larger than a jumbo jet, was carrying two Sukhoi-27 fighter planes.

Sergei Bogdanov, head of the Irkutsk Aviation Complex which produced the fighters and ran the airport from which the flight left, said the jet was en route to Vietnam to deliver them.

The apartment building hit by the plane housed 106 people. The aircraft just missed the nearby orphanage but its deputy director, Liana Letarnikova, said two children died and five were hurt in the ensuing fire.

She said about 150 children had been evacuated, along with over 300 other people.

Local officials said the death toll could have been far higher if the town's gas supply had not been coincidentally cut off shortly before the crash.

Dwarfing everything at the crash scene was the smudged white tailplane of the aircraft, decorated with a red star, lodged in the side and roof of the building. The rest of the aircraft's vast fuselage appeared to have disintegrated or burned.

The apartment building was covered with ice after firefighters poured water over it for hours before putting out a blaze that started when the plane crashed into the block.

About 1,600 rescue workers were involved in the search and rescue operation.

Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin visited the crash site after arriving Sunday morning to head an investigation. He said the government would allocate funds to build a new orphanage and apartments lost in the disaster.

Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Alexiy II said he was praying for the dead and their relatives and sent his condolences over the crash, which occurred just days after 67 coalminers were killed in a pit disaster in western Siberia.

In Irkutsk, one person said neighbors helped a 16-year-old girl escape safely from an apartment close to where the plane struck. Others watched in horror as the plane come down.

"I looked outside and saw the plane descending, leaning to one side, getting lower and lower. Then I heard this 'drrrk' sound and I wondered what's happening? Why isn't it going up?" said an elderly woman who witnessed the disaster.

"I felt a shudder go through me and I felt awful. Then I heard a bang and all my doors and windows blew open."

Military prosecutors have launched a routine criminal investigation into why the plane crashed.

The Antonov-124, with a total weight of 340 tonnes, was carrying 110 tons of aviation fuel. Russian media said it was 11 years old. A defense ministry spokesman said Russia had grounded Antonov-124s until the cause of the accident was known.