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Two Planes Collide Over Germany

July 2, 2002

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UEBERLINGEN, Germany (AP) _ A Russian passenger jet with dozens of people aboard and a two-pilot cargo plane collided late Monday over southern Germany in a fireball that scattered flaming wreckage for about 20 miles, and all aboard both aircraft were believed killed, officials said.

A Bashkirian Airlines Tu-154 from Moscow bound for Barcelona, Spain, and a Boeing 757 from the DHL delivery service were believed to have been flying at an altitude of about 36,000 feet when they hit, said Wolfgang Wenzel, a police spokesman in the city of Tuebingen.

``At such an altitude, it would be a wonder if anyone survived,″ he said.

Uta Otterbein, a spokeswoman for German Air Traffic Control, said the Tu-154 had 80 passengers and 13 crew aboard. But Wenzel said the German Embassy in Moscow had reported 57 passengers _ including eight children _ and 12 crew. German police earlier said up to 150 were killed, based on the capacity of the Soviet-era plane.

A German official said the collision happened when the Tu-154 pilot was asked by air traffic controllers to descend but did not respond to the request. The DHL pilot tried to change course, but it was too late to avoid the crash, said Ulrich Mueller, the Baden-Wuerttemberg state environment minister.

Search crews found the Tupolev’s flight data recorder, he said.

The planes came down near Ueberlingen on the northern shore of Lake Constance, which borders Switzerland and Austria. Burning wreckage was scattered for miles from the crash site, some 135 miles south of Frankfurt, police said.

German Air Traffic Control said the planes had just been handed off to Swiss air control and were the responsibility of controllers there. There was no immediate word from the Swiss side.

Dirk Diestel, 47, was changing his child’s diaper shortly before midnight when he looked up through a skylight and saw a huge fireball in the sky.

``Immediately I thought that something horrible had happened,″ he said. When he went outside, a landing gear was lying a few feet from his home.

Axel Gietz, head of corporate affairs at DHL in Brussels, Belgium, confirmed that the company’s plane had gone down in the collision, killing the British pilot, Paul Phillips, and his Canadian co-pilot, Brant Campioni.

Alfred Knoedler, a German TV reporter, said he saw the explosion in the sky.

``There was a noise like loud thunder, then this orange fireball plunged through the night sky,″ he said.

The cargo plane had two pilots aboard, Otterbein said. Another air controller, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the DHL plane was on a delivery trip from Bahrain to Brussels.

Rescue workers began recovering bodies of some of the victims after the two planes collided at 11:43 p.m., Wenzel said.

Dozens of people called police stations in the area saying they saw a large ball of fire in the sky at the time of the crash, Wenzel said.

At least one building was reported on fire, but there were no immediate reports of casualties on the ground. Hundreds of rescuers worked through the night locating wreckage and bodies, while helicopters flew overhead looking for burning or other visible parts of the planes.

In Moscow, a duty officer with Russian Emergency Situations Ministry confirmed that Bashkirian Airlines flight BTS2937 had departed from Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport bound for Barcelona with a stopover in Munich.

The Russian plane was a charter flight, said a duty officer for Bashkirian Airlines at its headquarters in Ufa, the capital of the Russian republic of Bashkortostan in the southern Ural Mountains.

The airline has eight Tu-154s in its fleet of 39 Soviet-designed planes. It mainly serves Russia and former Soviet republics, with some charter flights to other destinations.

The three-engine Tu-154, first put into commercial service in 1972, is the workhorse of Russia’s domestic airlines and widely used throughout the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, as well as in China.

A Tu-154 crashed in the Siberian city of Irkutsk last July, killing all 143 aboard. Another crashed on takeoff from Irkutsk in 1994, killing 124 people. The plane reportedly was overloaded.

A Tu-154 belonging to China Southwest Airlines crashed in China in 1999, killing all 61 people aboard. A German-owned Tu-154 collided with a U.S. Air Force C-141 off the coast of Namibia in 1998, killing 33 people, and in 1997 a Tajik Tu-154 crashed en route to the United Arab Emirates, killing 85.

Collisions in the air between large aircraft are extremely rare, especially at the high cruising altitudes where Monday’s crash reportedly occurred.

Most aircraft carry transponders, devices that relay a plane’s identification, altitude and speed to ground controllers. Controllers use this information to track aircraft and keep them a safe distance from each other. In addition, equipment on many aircraft can read the transponder signals of nearby planes, painting an electronic map to show pilots the aircraft around them.

Many planes also carry collision avoidance equipment that can automatically pull the plane away from an impending collision, or sound an alarm and tell the pilot which way to turn to avoid a crash.

Transponders must be regularly calibrated and checked to make sure they are functioning properly.

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