UFA, Russia – Parents of the 45 children killed when their charter plane collided with a cargo jet over southern Germany underwent medical examinations Wednesday to ensure that they could handle a trip to the crash site in their weakened emotional state.
Officials in the Russian republic of Bashkortostan said that Germany has given permission for the victims' families to travel to the site without visas. The families — some of who lost all of their children — were to leave Thursday morning for the one-day trip.
Many have given up hope of bringing home their children's' bodies, but they want at least a piece of the earth to remember them by.
"They just want to see the place where [their children] spent their last moments," said Bashkortostan's deputy prime minister, Khalyaf Ishmuratov.
The children — standout athletes or students with the best grades — had been headed to the Spanish coast on a special summer holiday trip away from their homes in this industrial and oil-refining city in the heart of Russia.
All 45 children and their four adult escorts were killed in the plane collision, which also claimed the lives of the Russian Tu-154 jet's 12 crew members. Also on the plane were seven other passengers and a representative of the Moscow travel agency organizing the trip, said Sergei Kolesnikov, general director of Kreks travel agency in Ufa, which helped organize the trip. The two pilots of the Boeing DHL plane also died.
All were killed in the plane collision, which also claimed the lives of their five adult escorts and all 12 crew members of the Russian Tu-154 jet. The two pilots of the Boeing DHL plane also died.
Flags flew at half-staff outside the government building that has become the crisis center for victims' families, overlooking the White River that flows through the regional capital of Ufa. Three days of mourning have been declared in Bashkortostan.
Teachers at the school Gymnasium No. 3, where seven of the victims were students, spent Wednesday poring over photos of the students and proudly showing off report cards filled with perfect results.
The victims' parents, meanwhile, continued preparations to travel to Germany in a bid to find some closure for their loss. Many don't even have passports, and were busy getting photographs taken and filling out forms to receive the passports before their trip.
Doctors in white coats swarmed around relatives of the victims at the crisis center. One physician rushed to checked a woman's blood pressure as she slumped over in tears. An ambulance stood ready outside the building.
Two women stood huddled Tuesday evening outside the government building, comforting each other in a tight embrace. When asked about their loss, one woman who declined to give her name could only answer, "What is there to say?"
Vinera Gadelshina, whose niece Svetlana Tukayeva was onboard the plane, sat outside the victims' center, breaking into tears as she recalled the 14-year-old student with a bright future ahead of her.
"Everything was wonderful," she said between sobs.
Along with the blank stares of disbelief, however, there was also anger at suggestions that the Russian pilots were to blame for the collision, in part because of a poor command of English.
Swiss air traffic control initially said the Russian pilots had responded slowly to commands and only began to descend after repeated requests. Swiss officials later conceded that they told the Russian crew to reduce altitude less than a minute before the planes collided.
"I am a teacher of English and I have to say I was angered to hear the accusations that the pilots did not have a good command of English," said Diana Itkulova, the sister of pilot Murat Itkulov. "My brother had been working abroad for many years — in Pakistan, Iran, United Arab Emirates, in Germany. He didn't just fly to these countries, he worked there. And my first reaction was indignation."
Local official Ishmuratov claimed that Russians were being made scapegoats because Europeans are hesitant to admit a mistake and further scare passengers away from flying when they are already choosing to stay home after the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the United States.
The trip to Spain had been supported by UNESCO and would have included a cultural program and visits to Spanish schools as well as a holiday at the beach, Ishmuratov said.
The children were due to stay at the 980-room, beach-side Estival Park hotel complex at Vila-Seca, 55 miles south of Barcelona on the Costa Dorada, or golden coast, one of Europe's most popular tourist areas.