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1,500 Rescue Workers Sift Through Accident Site Where Russian Cargo Jet Crashed Into Siberian

December 7, 1997

1,500 Rescue Workers Sift Through Accident Site Where Russian Cargo Jet Crashed Into Siberian City of Irkutsk Killing At Least 38 PeopleBy BARRY RENFREW

MOSCOW (AP) _ A Russian military cargo jet plowed into a residential neighborhood in a Siberian city on Saturday, spewing fiery wreckage as it broke into pieces and hit an apartment building. At least 38 people were killed in one of Russia’s worst air disasters.

The mammoth An-124 plunged to the ground 20 seconds after takeoff from Irkutsk, damaging four apartment buildings, an orphanage and a school, witnesses said. Scores of terrified children were evacuated.

``I thought somebody was shooting. ... I only saw the plane moving quietly to the ground, one wing lower than the other,″ a woman who saw the crash told the Independent Television channel.

``Everything is in turmoil,″ Irkutsk journalist Valery Pochekunin said several hours after the crash. ``I can see tens of bodies.″

The death toll was expected to rise as more than 1,500 firefighters, soldiers and medical personnel with heavy machinery and dogs scoured massive heaps of rubble. The rescue workers were preparing for a more extensive search when daylight hit.

Russian television stations showed pictures of the smashed aircraft’s giant tail _ emblazoned with the red star of the former Soviet Union _ leaning against a five-story apartment building. Surrounding structures were gutted by flames and still smoldering in Irkutsk, 2,600 miles east of Moscow.

There was confusion about the number of people aboard the 220-foot jet, roughly the size of a later-model Boeing 747.

The Defense Ministry said the plane was carrying 46 people, but the Ministry of Emergency Situations, which was heading rescue efforts, put the number at 23. There was no explanation for the contradiction.

After firefighters spent hours extinguishing the blaze, which hopped from one complex to the next, orange-clad rescue workers toiled in sub-zero temperatures to dislodge ice-encased airplane parts from the wreckage.

They pulled at least 36 bodies from the demolished apartment building, and turned up numerous body parts. Also, two dead girls were retrieved from the orphanage, where they apparently died in the fire that raced through the neighborhood.

``We don’t know how many people are under the debris,″ said Marina Ryklina of the Ministry of Emergency Situations.

Yevgeny Kozlov, a local emergency service official, said 12 people, including seven children, had been hospitalized in critical condition with burns. But authorities had no overall figures on the number of injured.

The plane had about 100 tons of fuel in its tanks when it crashed and the resulting explosion and fire enveloped the area, local officials said. The remains of the crew and people killed on the ground were terribly burned, they said.

The crash occurred at about 2 p.m. local time, when many residents were away doing weekend shopping, averting a much higher death toll, officials said.

The plane’s flight recorders were found, but would have to be examined in Moscow for clues on what caused the crash, they said. Skies were clear at the time.

The plane was 10 seconds into its flight after taking off from an aircraft factory airport on the outskirts of Irkutsk when both left engines failed at 210 feet, the ITAR-Tass news agency said. It slammed into the residential neighborhood about 20 seconds after takeoff.

The jet, which belonged to the Russian air force’s military transport service, was headed to the far eastern Russian city of Vladivostok.

The plane reportedly was carrying a cargo of two Sukhoi jet fighters from the Irkutsk factory for export, according to the Interfax news agency. The same plane was scheduled to fly from Vladivostok to Vietnam.

The four-engine cargo jet, commonly known as the Ruslan, is one of the world’s largest aircraft.

President Boris Yeltsin said he was shocked by news of the crash. He ordered Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin to go to Irkutsk and head the investigation into the accident.

``I expect the government ... to carry out a prompt investigation of the causes of the tragedy and find those responsible,″ Yeltsin said in a statement.

The crash came a day after a nationwide period of mourning for the victims of a mining explosion, also in Siberia, which killed 67 people

Russia and other nations of the former Soviet Union have been plagued by a series of deadly air crashes in recent years. Experts have blamed poor maintenance, safety violations and cost-cutting for persistent problems, which included a succession of major air crashes in Russia in 1994.

That year there were nine major crashes, including one in which a civilian Tu-154 airliner went down shortly after takeoff from Irkutsk, killing 124 people.

However, Russian aviation officials said recently that aircraft safety was improving following attempts to boost inspection standards.

In 1996, 219 people died in 43 air crashes.

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