At least 43 people have died in a Yakovlev Yak-42 passenger plane crash near the city of Yaroslavl in Central Russia, 270 kilometers north-east of Moscow. The majority of victims were members of the local ice hockey team Lokomotiv.
There were 37 passengers and eight crew members on board. Of the 45 people, only two survived. Seven bodies from the crashed plane have been identified so far. It has become the worst tragedy to affect Russian sport in the country's recent history.
The Yak-42 certainly appeared to overrun the take-off point. Witnesses report seeing clouds of dust as the plane took off at the very end of the runway where the concrete gives way to soil. The reason for this late take-off could have been insufficient engine thrust. This, in turn, might have resulted in the pilot making the mistake of attempting to take off when the plane had not gained sufficient speed, thus causing the aircraft to tilt to its left side and collide with the homing beacon mast some 450 meters from the runway, crashing on a bank of Volga River after that.
The Yak-42 needs a minimum speed of 215 km/h for a safe take-off and 420 km/h to gain the necessary altitude. Therefore, the possibility that a possible technical malfunction or a bird getting into one of the engines, preventing the plane from gaining the required speed, cannot be discounted. Still, the vehicle was moving so fast that the pilot obviously opted to take off anyway, as most certainly he would not have been able to stop the aircraft before the end of the runway.
Local citizens were the first to arrive at the scene of the crash and it was they who saved the only two survivors.
Air-mechanic Aleksandr Sizov was pulled out of the water by a local man. Sizov had multiple fractures of his left leg, scalp lacerations and facial burns. He was in a state of shock and unable to speak. After being treated by a local paramedic he was taken to hospital.
Aleksandr Galimov, a forward for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl and for Russia’s national team, was also saved from the Volga River by a fisherman who took the survivor to hospital in Yaroslavl. He received multiple fractures and sustained burns to over 80 per cent of his body, as well as severe damage to his respiratory system. According to the medical personnel, his condition has not improved overnight and remains critical.
“We heard a plane take off so we told our granddaughter: ‘look, there is going to be an airplane.’ Then I heard a bang and my daughter told me: ‘mom, it is falling down, to the side.’ Then came the flames and the smoke and we wanted to run away but didn’t know where to run. Then we went to the river and saw the plane,” an eyewitness of the disaster told RT.
“After the plane took off, I heard a noise like two cars colliding. Several seconds later we heard another bang. Then the plane started leaning to the right. After we heard the second bang, the plane suddenly dived and hit the ground. I didn’t see it hit the ground, but we saw that its tail had broken off. The plane broke in two,” says another witness.
The crash site is some 2,500 meters from the runway. The incident happened just next to the Volga River and some fragments of the aircraft and bodies of the victims fell into the water. So far 35 bodies have been recovered from the site, local rescue services say. The recovery operation will continue uninterrupted overnight, the regional department of the Investigative Committee said.
HK Lokomotiv confirmed that its entire 37-strong main squad was on board the Yak-42. They were traveling to the Belarusian capital Minsk. Eleven of the victims were foreign players for the club. The squad included three players from the Czech Republic, two Ukrainians as well as athletes from Belarus, Canada, Germany, Latvia, Slovakia and Sweden.
“Yaroslavl is my home team. We supported it. We loved this team and we were shocked when we found out. We went to all their games, knew all of them by name. It’s very difficult,” an eyewitness told RT.
The two survivors are in a serious condition and have been taken to hospital. One of them is team member Aleksandr Galimov. The other is a flight engineer, preliminary reports say.
“Galimov has burns to 80 per cent of his body, the crew member has broken bones and lacerations in addition to massive burns,” Dr. Viktor Berezin from the hospital’s burn trauma department told Interfax.
Aviation authorities say the Yak-42 underwent all the routine checks before being cleared for the flight and was in good condition.
It is the first-ever fatal crash involving a sports team in modern Russia. Soviet Union’s worst incident of this kind was the 1979 mid-air collision of two Tupolev Tu-134s in Dniprodzerzhynsk, Ukraine. Seventeen players and staff of the then-Soviet top-division Pakhtakor Football Club team died in the crash.
The Yaroslavl HC Lokomotiv were Russian Champions in 1997, 2002 and 2003. The squad was to play a match against Mink HC Dinamo on Thursday.
The heads of the KHL have held an urgent meeting to discuss the measures to be taken following the tragic crash and death of the Yaroslavl team. The Salavat Ulaev versus Atlant match, which is the opening battle of the league season, was cancelled by the KHL.
President Dmitry Medvedev is to visit the crash site on Thursday. He offered his condolences to the relatives of the victims and to fans of the club over the tragedy.
Visitors of the International Political Forum, who are visiting Yaroslavl at the moment, held a minute’s silence to commemorate the victims of the crash. The Russian Hockey Federation voiced its condolences to the Lokomotiv club, the families of the victims and the entire ice hockey community.
Leaders and officials from a number of countries, including Belarus, Ukraine, Latvia and Germany among others have expressed their regrets after hearing the news of the tragedy. The International Ice Hockey Federation and national hockey federations and other sporting organizations from Belarus, Georgia and other countries also offered their condolences.
Hockey fans in Moscow are gathering in Red Square near the Kremlin to honor the deceased Lokomotiv players and the other victims of the crash. In Minsk, people are laying flowers in front of the stadium where the team was scheduled to play on Thursday.
Yaroslavl fans have placed a giant club flag on the ground in front of its training base. They are also gathering at one of the city’s squares to mark the loss of their team.
Russia’s Investigative Committee has launched a criminal investigation into the incident and sent a team of forensic experts from Moscow to Yaroslavl, according to the spokesman for the committee, Vladimir Markin.
The Interstate Aviation Committee, a regional regulating body, has launched its own probe into the cause of the crash.
Prime Minister Putin ordered Transport Minister Igor Levitin to organize the initial part of the investigation at the scene.
Investigators have only just begun collecting evidence and data from the fatal Yak-42 plane crash. All possible causes for the tragedy are being considered – but sources within the investigative teams say the main focus is on technical failure and human error.