A Russian military passenger plane carrying dozens of Red Army Choir singers, dancers and orchestra members plunged into the Black Sea minutes after it took off en route today to a military base in Syria, killing all 92 people on board, Russia’s Defense Ministry said.
The cause of the crash had yet to be determined Sunday afternoon. Russian officials were ruling out terrorism, though Russia’s Federal Security Service was looking into everyone who could have come in contact with the jet on the ground.
Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, a Russian military spokesman, told reporters that no one survived after the aging Soviet-era jet, which originally set out from Moscow, crashed shortly a refueling stop at the airport in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi.
“The area of the crash site has been established,” Konashenkov said. “No survivors have been spotted.”
Russian news agencies reported that the plane crashed about two minutes after taking off in good weather. It had not sent a distress signal before disappearing from the radar, and no life rafts had been found by 3,000 people engaged in the recovery. Konashenkov described the captain of the jet as an experienced “first-class pilot.”
In nationally televised comments, Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking in St. Petersburg, declared Dec. 26 a national day of mourning and said the cause of the crash would be carefully investigated.
Viktor Ozerov, head of the defense affairs committee in the upper house of Russian parliament, said in remarks carried by the state news agency RIA Novosti that he “totally excludes” terrorism as a possible cause.
The news agency Interfax quoted a law enforcement source as saying that the aircraft took off from a heavily guarded military aerodrome outside Moscow.
“Infiltrating it in order to plant an explosive device on a plane does not appear possible. For its part, the airport in Sochi is a dual-purpose one and has increased security,” Interfax quoted the source as saying. “Outsider infiltration by or a staff member bringing unauthorized items is ruled out.”
Konashenkov said the jet, a Tupolev 154 passenger liner built in 1983, last underwent repairs in December 2014 and had since been fully serviced. Russia’s special Investigative Committee announced that it had opened a criminal inquiry. As of late Sunday afternoon, the remains of 10 passengers had been recovered.
Among the victims was Yelizaveta Glinka, known in Russia as “Doctor Liza,” who had won broad acclaim for her charity work, which included missions to the war zone in eastern Ukraine. Her foundation announced that she was accompanying a shipment of medicines for a hospital in Syria. Russian state television showed her accepting an honor from Putin for her work.
When she and fellow workers depart for a war zone, she said at the ceremony, “We never know whether we’ll return, because war is hell on Earth.”
The Defense Ministry published on its website a list of passengers, who included members of the famed Alexandrov ensemble, better known internationally as the Red Army Choir, heading to Syria to entertain Russian military personnel for the coming New Year holiday.
The choir, founded in 1928, has performed around the world and during the Cold War presented a human face for the Soviet Union with its repertoire of famed Russian folk songs. More recently, the ensemble, which numbered about 200 singers, dancers and musicians, added popular Western music to its performances. Among those who were on the plane that crashed Sunday, according to the list, was the ensemble’s artistic director, Valery Khalilov.
Deputy Prime Minister Olga Golodets told the Tass news agency that Khalilov’s death was an “irreplaceable loss” and that he had “made a huge contribution in contemporary culture above being the head of the orchestra and a composer.”
U.S. Ambassador John Tefft joined other diplomats and international leaders in offering condolences.
The Tu-154 is a Soviet-built, three-engine airliner designed in the late 1960s that was the workhouse of the Soviet, and later Russian, fleet of intermediate range passenger jets. In recent years, Russian airlines have replaced the jets with modern aircraft – often manufactured by Boeing or Airbus – but the military and some other government agencies in Russia have continued to use them.
Russia’s minister for industry and trade said Sunday that it was too early to make a decision about whether to take the jets out of service.
“There are a lot of aircraft in the world that are no longer being produced but are still being flown,” said the official, Denis Manturov. “First we need to finish the investigation and understand the reasons (for the crash), and then make decisions.”
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · David Filipov