The brakes on a Russian plane may have failed as it landed and careened into garages in a fiery crash that killed at least 122 people in the country’s second major commercial airline disaster in two months, Russian news agencies reported Sunday.
Early information gathered by investigators indicated that the braking system on the Airbus A-310 operated by Russian airline S7 had malfunctioned, the news agencies reported, citing unnamed sources.
The plane was carrying at least 201 people on the 2,600-mile flight east from Moscow to the Siberian city of Irkutsk. Fifty-eight people were injured.
An air stewardess, Viktoria Zilberstein, opened the emergency hatch in the rear of the burning plane, according to the Emergency Ministry. Ten passengers escaped this way, and others — including a pilot — were saved by rescuers including firefighters, ITAR-Tass reported.
Families in shock
Relatives streamed to a crisis center near Moscow’s Domodedovo airport, where the flight originated. Some stumbled out in silent shock. One woman ecstatically exclaimed into her cell phone that a family friend had survived.
After veering off the runway at about 7:50 a.m., the plane tore through a 6-foot-high concrete barrier, crashed into a compound of one-story garages and stopped a short distance from some small houses.
“I saw smoke coming from the aircraft. People were already walking out who were charred, injured, burnt,” a witness, Mikhail Yegeryov, told NTV television.
“I asked a person who was in the Airbus what happened, and he said the plane had landed on the tarmac but didn’t brake. The cabin then burst into flames,” Yegeryov said.
Irkutsk airport challenging
Pilots regard the Irkutsk airport as difficult because its runway slopes and its concrete is especially slippery when wet, Vladimir Biryukov, an expert at the Gromov Aviation Institute, said on NTV.
Transport Minister Igor Levitin said the pilot had radioed ground control to say the aircraft had landed safely and then communication cut off.
“There was rain, the landing strip was wet. So we’ll have to check the clutch and the technical condition of the aircraft,” he told Russian state television. He said the aircraft’s two recorders had been recovered and were being analyzed.
He provided no further details and other Russian officials could not be reached for comment on the reports that the brakes on the plane may have failed.
Airline official: Plane was properly maintained
Airline spokesman Konstantin Koshman said there were 193 passengers — including 14 children ages 12 and under — and a crew of eight aboard. He said the plane, constructed in 1987, had been regularly maintained and met all certifications.
Many of the children were headed to nearby Lake Baikal on vacation, according to news reports.
President Vladimir Putin conveyed his condolences to relatives of the victims and declared Monday a national day of mourning.
Three people whose names were not on the passenger list were pulled unconscious from the wreckage; it was unclear if they had been on the ground or were flying unregistered, Emergency Ministry spokeswoman Natalia Lukash said.
Outside the crisis center, a man who gave his name only as Vyacheslav said his brother, sister-in-law and their 4-year-old son had been on the plane and were not on the list of survivors.
He stood grimly on the grass while his friend Larisa Kolcheva, 27, sat on a curb fighting back tears. “They were sitting with us in a cafe literally yesterday evening,” she said.
Roman Gavrilov, 27, said his father — who was not yet accounted for — had gone to Irkutsk for a fishing trip with old army buddies, his first vacation in three years. “We still have hope,” he said.
Fourth crash in 12 years
In May, an Airbus crashed in stormy weather off Russia’s Black Sea coast as it prepared to land, killing all 113 people on board. Airline officials blamed the crash of the Armenian passenger plane on driving rain and low visibility.
S7, formerly known as Sibir, is Russia’s second-largest airline, a regional outfit carved out of Aeroflot’s Siberian wing after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Cash-strapped and saddled with aging planes, such airlines were once notorious for their disregard for safety, but their records have improved in recent years.
Sunday’s disaster was the fourth air crash in Irkutsk in the past 12 years:
In January 1994, a Tu-154 aircraft crashed on takeoff; killing 124; in December 1997, an An-124 military transport aircraft crashed in a residential area, killing 72; and in July 2001, a Tu-154 crashed near Irkutsk, killing all 143 on board.