SOCHI, Russia – Searchers combed the waters off the resort city of Sochi on Thursday, looking for bodies and a flight recorder from an Armenian passenger jet that slammed into the Black Sea in bad weather and ripped apart, killing all 113 people on board.
Anguished relatives and friends gathered at a central hotel and at a city morgue, where many stared ashen-faced at grotesquely disfigured faces and bodies appearing in coroners' photographs.
Transport Minister Igor Levitin said just 28 bodies had been identified so far, of a total of 53 recovered.
Levitin told reporters that searchers had located a large part of the plane's fuselage that was emitting a radio signal believed to be from a flight recorder, and Russian news agencies later quoted an emergency official as saying signals from a second "black box" had been detected nearby.
But Levitin said the debris lay in some 2,230 feet of water, and that Russian authorities did not have the equipment to raise the wreckage.
"We will turn to other countries that have the experience in raising objects from the depths," he said.
The Airbus A-320 plunged into the sea in the pre-dawn hours Wednesday in heavy rain and poor visibility as it was approaching the airport in Adler, about 12 miles south of Sochi, a city wedged between the sea and soaring, snowcapped mountains. Searchers found wreckage spread over a wide area about 3.5 miles offshore.
"We are not considering any working theory until we get a better understanding of the events that took place, and that will require deciphering of the black boxes," Levitin said earlier.
Federal prosecutors dismissed the possibility of terrorism and other officials pointed to the rough weather or pilot error as the likely cause.
The head of the Georgian air control agency, which covered 90 percent of the Armavia jet's final flight, said that the crew had begun to return to the Armenian capital, Yerevan, because of weather conditions around Sochi but when it was over the western Georgian city of Kutaisi, Russian air controllers announced that the weather at the Adler airport had improved.
"And since they had enough fuel, the pilot decided to fly back to Adler," Georgian agency chief Georgy Karbelashvili told The Associated Press.
The Interfax news agency, citing an unnamed source in the Russian commission investigating the disaster, said there was information indicating the crew was informed just three to four miles from the runway, when the plane was at an altitude of 990 feet, that landing was "not recommended." The source said that the plane was turning back when it hit the water.
The president of the Armenian Aviation Association, former pilot Dmitry Adbashian, said in Yerevan that Sochi's airport is difficult because of limited approaches and fickle weather, and that rules established in the Soviet era prohibited inexperienced pilots from landing there. He told AP that it is impossible for a plane that is less than 2.5 miles out and lower than 650 feet to pull back and start a new approach.
In televised comments, President Vladimir Putin told chief prosecutor Vladimir Ustinov to work fast to determine the cause of the crash, but acknowledged it would be difficult without flight recorders.
At a Sochi morgue, grim-faced relatives peered at a nearly 6-foot high wooden board in the courtyard holding coroner photographs, some showing barely recognizable corpses and faces. Forensic authorities emerged from the building periodically asking if anyone had recognized a person in the photographs.