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Search Teams Try to Reach Arctic Island Plane Crash

August 30, 1996

LONGYEARBYEN, Norway (AP) _ Search teams today tried to reach the isolated, arctic mountain where a Russian airliner crashed, killing 141 people in the worst air disaster in Norwegian history.

All those on board the aging Tupolev 154 _ most of them Ukrainian and Russian coal miners and their families _ died Thursday when the plane went down while approaching the main airport of Norway’s Svalbard Islands in the Arctic Ocean.

Officials refused today to speculate on the cause of the disaster. The weather was cloudy, with light winds and visibility of about 4 miles at the time of the crash. However, the small airport was not equipped with radar.

Rescuers attempting to reach the 3,000-feet-high Opera Mountain, 6 miles east of the airport, were forced back by high winds and fog late Thursday. Weather conditions were improving this morning.

Getting all the bodies down will require a combination of mountaineering expedition and rescue work. There are no roads in the area.

``It is so steep that we are not sure that our people can get up there without being secured″ by climbing equipment, police spokesman Arne Bjoerkaas told reporters in Longyearbyen, the main town on the island of Spitsbergen.

``It might be necessary to bring in climbing and avalanche experts to make sure engines don’t fall down on our heads,″ he said.

Rescuers were surveying the site by helicopter this morning, Bjoerkaas said. Part of the wreckage was near the mountain top, but the jet’s engines and tail as well as the bodies of many victims had slid down a steep slope.

The main fuselage, crushed and torn open was barely recognizable in photographs. Debris, and what appeared to be luggage, equipment and bodies were scattered in the snow.

During the night, guards protected the wreck, partly from polar bears that roam the glacier-covered islands.

Bjoerkaas said it could be days, even a week, before the bodies are recovered.

The first physician on the scene Thursday, Hans Gravraak, said, ``It was a terrible sight. When I could find no one alive, I felt so powerless.″

The catastrophe has stunned the roughly 3,200 residents of the Svalbard Archipelago, 400 miles north of Norway. Half of them are Russian citizens living in coal-mining settlements on Spitsbergen, the main island. Many of the miners were bound for Barentsburg, the biggest of two Russian villages.

The archipelago is Norwegian territory under the 1920 Treaty of Svalbard. The treaty allows others nations access for non-military operations.

``There is an unreal and numbing feeling in town. The flags are all at half mast,″ said Svalbard Gov. Ann-Kristin Olsen in Longyearbyen.

She said 91 Russians had been waiting at the airport for the chartered plane, looking forward to taking the plane home for a regular break from the bleak island, 60 percent covered by glaciers. Norwegian interpreter Baard Olsen spent the night with about 30 of them in a church.

``Some slept. Some whispered together, while others just sat and stared into the darkness,″ he said. ``People are in shock.″

A moment of silence to remember the victims was observed early today on a flight from Oslo, the first plane to fly into the islands since the crash.

Ukraine’s president declared today a day of mourning and ordered the government to help the families of those killed. Approximately 70 Ukrainians were among the victims.

``Many of these people worked together for 20-30 years,″ Russian resident Alla Sejmova said in an interview with Norwegian television. ``They just cry. They just look at me with tears in their eyes.″

``This hits everyone on the islands hard, both Russians and Norwegians, because we call know each other so well,″ Viktor Czeschakov, mine director at the second Russian outpost, Pyramiden, told the Norwegian news agency NTB.

The crash was the latest _ and worst _ in a series of deadly accidents that have plagued Russian airliners since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and the breakup of the former state airline Aeroflot.

Vnukovo Airlines, which operated the flight, is one of Russia’s largest private carriers. Recently, the Russian weekly magazine Itogi criticized its poor service and lax safety standards.

It was not certain whether the plane was equipped with flight recorders, which often hold the clues to airplane crashes.

The chairman of the Norwegian Pilots Association, Tove Skogheim Haugen, criticized the airport for poor runway lighting, lack of radar and limited navigation instruments.

But Svein Solberg, a pilot for Norway’s Braathens SAFE airline, said flying into the airport was not especially difficult, ``but the topography, with high mountains on both sides, means that a small deviation can have very serious consequences.″

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