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Swiss Open Probe in Plane Collision

July 5, 2002

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UEBERLINGEN, Germany (AP) _ Swiss prosecutors opened a criminal investigation Thursday into the collision of two airliners as grieving families of dozens of children killed in the crash piled flowers around the aircraft wreckage.

Meanwhile, initial results of a German-led inquiry into the crash _ which killed 71 people, 45 of them Russian children headed for an end-of-school beach vacation _ found a Russian pilot had been given just 44 seconds warning before slamming into an oncoming cargo plane.

The investigations turned fresh attention on Swiss air traffic control, which took charge of the planes shortly before the crash.

Swiss prosecutors said their investigation was opened amid suspicions of negligent homicide. The aim is to establish whether any actions by Swiss air traffic control could prompt criminal charges, said Christoph Naef, a spokesman for Zurich prosecutors.

Already, the Swiss have said there was only one controller in the Zurich tower at the time and there should have been two because a crash avoidance system was out of service for maintenance. The second controller had taken a break.

Chief German investigator Peter Schlegel said analysis of radio transmissions showed the Bashkirian Airlines Tu-154 was given six seconds less than the 50-second warning Swiss and German officials had previously reported. That is nearly a minute less than the Swiss had claimed shortly after the crash.

The Russian-made Tupolev began to dive just 14 seconds after the initial warning and 30 seconds before the crash. The Russian plane was responding to a second Swiss warning.

``The Tupolev should have begun descending at the latest 1 1/2 minutes before the crossing point,″ Schlegel said, at a news conference in the north central German city of Braunschweig.

But he said it was too early to determine blame for the collision with a Boeing 757 DHL International delivery service jet just before midnight Monday. Both pilots on that plane died.

Schlegel denied a Russian news report that experts decoding the planes’ flight data and cockpit voice recorders found the Russian pilot asked to change course 1 1/2 minutes before the collision.

The children _ all gifted students from Ufa, an industrial city in Bashkortostan region in the southern Ural Mountains _ were heading to Spain as a reward for getting top grades.

On Thursday, parents and other relatives of the young Russians hugged, cried, piled flowers and placed wreaths at the wreckage in a solemn farewell. Some of the 150 family members were so overcome with grief they needed medical treatment, officials said.

Women leaned on one another in the sun as they walked from a golden barley field where the jet’s tail section lay askew in the gently rolling hills leading down to Lake Constance. The Swiss Alps towered in the background.

An Orthodox priest and a Muslim cleric offered prayers, as the relatives left seven large flower wreaths.

German officials had asked the parents for photographs and other aids to help in the ``extraordinarily difficult identification″ of their children. The bodies were in such terrible condition relatives should not have to identify them, said Baden-Wuerttemberg state Interior Minister Thomas Schaeuble.

Officials said they had recovered 69 by the time the search was called off for the night. The search was to continue Friday.

Many questions remained, including whether both planes’ onboard collision-warning systems were functioning.

``We don’t know whether it was human error, or technical error, or whether there was a chain of unfortunate circumstances,″ German Transport Minister Kurt Bodewig said.

Schlegel said the Zurich control tower received notification 14 seconds before the impact that one plane’s collision-warning system was recommending it descend. Investigators believe it was the Boeing, which then began to dive _ meaning that both planes were taking the same evasive action at the same time, thus continuing on their collision course.

``That clearly worsened the situation and it will be a major issue in the investigation,″ Schlegel said.

Officials said the Russian plane also had a collision avoidance system, but it was unclear whether it was working at the time of the crash.

Though several experts have said Europe’s fragmented air traffic control system was not to blame for the collision, the crash revived calls for a single, Europe-wide system.

``The small-state thinking must be replaced by a unified system,″ Bodewig said.

Swiss authorities had said shortly after the tragedy that their controllers gave the Russian pilot 90 seconds warning, but quickly scaled that back to 50 seconds to match subsequent German reports. The Swiss had also initially claimed the Russian pilot had not responded until a third warning from the tower.

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