Plane Crashes in Siberia, Killing at Least 122

An airliner careened off a rain-slicked runway in the Siberian city of Irkutsk early Sunday, plowing into adjacent garages and bursting into flames. At least 122 people were killed and 58 injured in the accident, the second major commercial airline crash in two months in Russia.

Passengers' relatives streamed to a crisis center near the Moscow airport where the flight originated. Some stumbled out of the center in silent shock, others anxiously clung to hope and one woman hurried out ecstatically, exclaiming into her mobile phone that a family friend had survived the disaster.

Preliminary data gathered by the commission investigating the crash indicate that the braking system on the Airbus A-310 operated by Russian airline S7 had failed, Russian news agencies reported, citing unnamed sources.

The plane was carrying at least 201 people on a flight from Moscow to Irkutsk.

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Airline spokesman Konstantin Koshman said there were 193 passengers — including 14 children aged 12 and under — and a crew of eight aboard. Emergency Ministry spokeswoman Natalia Lukash said three people whose names were not on the passenger list were pulled unconscious from the wreckage; it was not clear if they had been on the ground or were flying as unregistered passengers.

Many of the children were headed to nearby Lake Baikal on vacation, according to Russian news reports, although Kosmhman said he had no details on that. Irkutsk is 4,200 kilometers (2,600 miles) east of Moscow.

The plane veered off the runway on landing and tore through a 2-meter-high (6-foot-high) concrete barrier. It then crashed into a compound of one-story garages, stopping a short distance from some small houses, about 7:50 a.m. (2250 GMT Saturday).

A witness said he heard a concussion and the ground trembled.

"I saw smoke coming from the aircraft. People were already walking out who were charred, injured, burnt," 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.

Transport Minister Igor Levitin blamed the wet runway.

"The aircraft veered off the runway. 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.

Pilots regard the Irkutsk airport as difficult because its runway slopes and because its concrete is especially slippery when wet, Vladimir Biryukov, an expert at the Gromov Aviation Institute, said on NTV.

Koshman, the airline spokesman, said the plane, which was constructed in 1987, had been regularly maintained and met all certifications.

President Vladimir Putin conveyed his condolences to family and friends of the victims and declared Monday a national day of mourning.

One air stewardess, Viktoria Zilberstein, opened the emergency hatch in the rear of the aircraft and let a number of passengers out, said the Emergency Ministry's regional branch.

Ten passengers managed to escape this way and other survivors, including a pilot, were rescued by firefighters and rescuers from the burning wreckage, ITAR-Tass reported.

The transport minister said the aircraft's two recorders had been recovered and were being deciphered.

Levitin added that the pilot had radioed ground control to say the aircraft had landed safely and then communication cut off.

Anxious and frightened relatives of passengers came Sunday to Moscow's Domodedovo airport, from where the plane took off. A crisis center was set up near the airport to provide them information and aid.

A man who gave his name only as Vyacheslav — whose brother, sister-in-law and their 4-year-old son were on the plane and were not on a list of those hospitalized alive — 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.

Later, a woman rushed out of the crisis center with a relieved smile, dialed her cellular phone, and exclaimed "Mama, Pashka's alive! He just went into a clinic." The woman, who declined to give her name, said the man was one of her brother's two friends who were on the flight.

"We still have hope," said 27-year-old Roman Gavrilov, whose father had gone to Irkutsk for a fishing trip with old army buddies, his first vacation in three years.

In May, another 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.

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 from Irkutsk, killing 124 people. In December 1997, an An-124 military transport aircraft crashed in a residential area of the city, killing 72 people. And in July 2001, a Tu-154 crashed near Irkutsk, killing all 143 people on board.

S7, formerly known as Sibir, is Russia's second-largest airline, carved out of Aeroflot's Siberian wing after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Cash-strapped and saddled with aging aircraft, regional airlines whittled out of Aeroflot were once notorious for their disregard for safety but their records have improved in recent years.

The airline said 12 foreigners were aboard: three each from Germany and China and two each from Poland, Azerbaijan and Belarus. The Poles and Belarusians were taken to a hospital, as were two Germans and an Azeri, the airline said. Further details were not available.