Image: Crash site of jet near Bishkek
Yelena Skochilo  /  AP
The crash is the worst aviation disaster in nearly two decades in the impoverished ex-Soviet Central Asian nation, whose aging airplanes are prohibited from operating in Europe because of safety concerns.
updated 8/25/2008 1:06:57 PM ET 2008-08-25T17:06:57

The relatives of 65 people killed in a plane crash near Kyrgyzstan’s main airport began the process of identifying the bodies in the capital Monday.

Many of the nearly 100 weeping relatives who gathered at the main Bishkek morgue clutched dental records because most of the bodies were charred.

One woman, who declined to be named because she was traumatized, said the body of her brother-in-law was identified only by the watch he was wearing.

The Boeing 737 was headed to the Iranian capital, Tehran, when it crashed Sunday near Bishkek’s Manas International Airport. Twenty-five people survived the accident, which investigators believe was caused by technical problems.

It was the worst aviation disaster in nearly two decades in the impoverished ex-Soviet Central Asian nation, whose aging airplanes are prohibited from operating in Europe because of safety concerns. Officials declared Tuesday a day of national mourning.

The plane crashed shortly after takeoff, after requesting an emergency landing and burst into flames on a field close to the airport. Officials ruled out a terrorist attack, saying the crash likely resulted from a loss of cabin pressure, but offered no theories as to the cause of the decompression.

Students loses classmates
Medical workers and psychologists stood nearby to assist the relatives at the morgue.

Aigul, a 20-year old university student who declined to give her surname, said two of her classmates were on the plane heading to Tehran for a one-year scholarship program.

The plane belonged to the Kyrgyz company Itek Air, which, as all of the nation’s airlines, is banned from operating in the European Union’s airspace because of failure to meet safety and aviation standards.

Kyrgyzstan has struggled to meet international aviation maintenance and safety standards. Many of the planes are aging Soviet-era models.

The plane carried 83 passengers — including members of a local high school sports team — along with six crew members and an aviation official. Those on board included 24 Kyrgyz citizens, 52 Iranians, three Kazakhs, two Canadians, one citizen of Turkey and one Chinese, according to transport authorities.

Survivors kick open door
Officials said the survivors were 11 Iranians and 14 Kyrgyz citizens, including the entire crew. Twenty-two were being treated in Bishkek hospitals and three people were sent home without serious injuries.

Some survivors said they had to kick open a rear exit in order to climb to safety from the smoke-filled jet.

Iranian citizen Ali Hazemi said that shortly after the plane took off, the pilot announced that the jet was returning to Bishkek because of engine failure. After the plane turned around, it dove sharply and crashed within minutes.

“I felt a wave of hot air sweeping all over me and a terrible smell of burning,” said Hazemi, 39, who was being treated in a Bishkek hospital. “I immediately unfastened the safety belt and fell to the floor. The air was cooler there and we could breathe.”

Hazemi found his way outside after another passenger managed to kick out a rear exit. He then returned to the burning jet to rescue his two sisters. “I can’t believe I survived. It’s a miracle.”

Emergency officials have already retrieved two black box flight recorders and investigators were trying to determine the cause of the crash.

Kyrgyzstan is a poor, mountainous country west of China. Bishkek, the capital and largest city, has a population about 1 million and is situated in the north.

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