Boats laden with bodies and twisted metal sailed into the palm-fringed harbor of this popular Russian resort Wednesday, carrying the remains of some of the 113 people who died when an Armenian airliner smashed into the Black Sea.
The plane went down about 2:15 a.m. in heavy rain and poor visibility as it was approaching the airport in Adler, about 12 miles south of this city wedged between the sea and soaring snowcapped mountains. Most of the dead were Armenians.
“I’ve lost my sweetheart, my son!” Anait Bagusian, 50, wailed at Zvartnots Airport in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, from which the flight originated. Doctors hovered nearby because she swooned several times.
Search for ‘black boxes’
Authorities were investigating the cause of the crash as divers attempted to retrieve the Airbus A-320’s recorders from the deep, wave-chopped site about 3½ miles offshore.
A spokeswoman for the Prosecutor General’s office, Nataliya Vishnyakova, dismissed the possibility of terrorism. Other officials pointed to the rough weather or pilot error as the likely cause. It is difficult even under normal conditions to land at the airport, which can be approached only from the sea.
Boats battled stiff winds and heavy seas to try to recover bodies and fragments of the plane, which was leased by Armavia, Armenia’s largest airline. By late afternoon, 46 bodies had been brought into the port and taken to morgues for identification.
Agony for relatives
Outside one morgue, about 100 people stood grimly, rushing forward every time a truck carrying remains pulled up to the gates. “People want to know anything just now, anything,” said 38-year-old Aryag Ghagosian, who said a friend’s brother was on the flight
“The women are all home crying. The men are all standing here waiting. What else can we do?” said a 47-year-old man who gave his name only as Misha, reflecting the wide distrust of authorities within Sochi’s large Armenian community.
He said his brother, sister-in-law and nephew had been aboard the plane, but he didn’t know if their bodies were recovered. “They say they’re identifying the bodies, but we’re not learning anything,” he complained.
At Zvartnots Airport in Armenia, other relatives were in agony.
Samvel Oganesian said his 23-year-old son, Vram, and his friend Hamlet Abgarian had been heading to Sochi for vacation.
“Why did he go?” Oganesian asked in anguish, over and over again.
Putin declares day of mourning
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Armenian President Robert Kocharian declared Friday a day of mourning in both countries.
The airline said 26 Russians, one Ukrainian and one Georgian were among the passengers, while the rest were Armenian citizens. But Interfax cited Armenian civil aviation spokesman Gayane Davtian as saying no Georgians or Ukrainians were aboard. The passengers included the airline’s deputy general director, Vyacheslav Yaralov, the airline said.
The plane broke up on impact, and passengers’ personal belongings and plane fragments were found scattered over an area spreading a mile from the crash site.
There were conflicting statements about the events leading to the crash.
Emergency ministry spokesman Viktor Beltsov said the plane disappeared from radar screens while trying to make a repeat attempt at an emergency landing. However, Interfax quoted the Russian air control agency as saying the plane’s crew had not declared any emergency.
Official: Bad weather ‘certainly’ to blame
Armavia deputy commercial deputy Andrei Agadzhanov said in Yerevan that the crew had communicated with ground controllers while the plane was flying over the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. The ground controllers said the weather in Adler was poor but the plane could still land, Agadzhanov said.
Just before the landing, however, the ground controllers told the crew to circle in the air again before approaching the airport and then it crashed.
Agadzhanov said the crew was highly experienced, the airplane was in good condition and that weather conditions were “certainly” the cause.
The plane was manufactured in 1995 and underwent full-scale servicing a year ago, he said. A statement from Airbus said the plane had logged more than 28,200 flight hours.
History of deadly crashes
Airlines in former Soviet countries wracked up a grisly record of crashes in the 1990s, following the whittling off of much of Soviet monopoly carrier Aeroflot into hundreds of regional airlines plagued by scant money, aging equipment and cavalier disregard for safety.
They often flew badly overloaded. In an infamous 1994 case, 75 people were killed in a crash reportedly caused by the pilot’s allowing his teenage son to take the controls.
In recent years, crashes from equipment failure or pilot error have declined sharply.