Russians Investigate Plane Crash as Relatives Seek Information

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Aviation officials struggled to explain Russia's second deadly passenger jet disaster in nearly as many months Monday, as relatives of the more than 120 people killed in the Airbus A310 crash desperately searched for information about loved ones.

Three other incidents incidents involving Russian-operated planes happened on Monday, with several people suffering burns in one.

A Russian-built passenger jet made an emergency landing at the same Siberian airport as a Russian jet carrying a top Russian naval chief crashed landed in Ukraine — adding more questions about the state of the nation's civil aviation industry.

In Irkutsk, 4,200 kilometers (2,600 miles) east of Moscow, the Airbus airliner, operated by the company S7, careened off a wet runway and slammed into adjacent garages Sunday morning, bursting into flames.

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As of Monday evening, 127 people were confirmed dead and were awaiting forensics identification, said Russian Transport Minister Igor Levitin. Of the 75 people who survived the crash, four were missing and 53 remained hospitalized Monday, authorities said.

The preliminary investigation showed that the braking system failed on the Airbus A310 operated by Russia's S7, Russian news agencies reported, citing unnamed sources. Levitin said the two flight recorders were now being analyzed.

There were 193 passengers on the Moscow-Irkutsk flight Sunday — including 14 children — and a crew of 10 aboard, the S7 press office said. At least 12 were foreigners, from Belarus, Poland, China, Germany and Azerbaijan, according to the flight manifest.

Three people whose names were not on passengers list were pulled unconscious from the wreckage, Emergency Ministry spokeswoman Natalia Lukash said. It was not clear if they had been on the ground or were flying as unregistered passengers.

On Monday, several dozen investigators stood on top of what remained of the fuselage in a light rain, picking through the charred and water-logged wreckage, which stood some two stories high. Brightly colored clothing and airline upholstery could be seen among the soggy, blackened mess.

At one Irkutsk morgues, dozens of people struggled to identify their loved ones, clustering around printed lists of the victims, which bore graphic, clinical details of the victims. One woman shouted in frustration at the line of police controlling the entrance to the morgue: "Can we just go and see the children? Can't we just identify the children?"

Ivan Zotov said he lost his 32-year-old brother, who was returning from a vacation on the Black Sea resort of Sochi. His brother's wife and daughter had not learned of the death yet, since they were on a train home to Irkutsk.

"It's ridiculous. It's like they're just a sack of potatoes. How can we figure anything out from these lists?" Zotov said, shaking his head in frustration.

Levitin told reporters that authorities were looking into a proposal to lengthen the runway at the airport by 400 meters (a quarter-mile) and he announced financing for resurfacing the runway.

The plane, built in 1987, had been regularly maintained and met all certifications, airline spokesman Konstantin Koshman said.

The catastrophe was the second major commercial airline crash in two months in Russia, and it was followed Monday by incidents involving three other Russian-operated planes, stoking renewed concerns about air safety standards. It was also the fourth air crash in Irkutsk in the past 12 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.

Another Russian airliner, a Tu-154 operated by Urals Airlines, made an emergency landing in Irkutsk on Monday after one of its engines failed, the Emergency Situations Ministry said. The RIA-Novosti news agency, however, quoted airline deputy director, Vladimir Chikilev, as saying that the pilot decided to make an emergency landing after the fuel gauge malfunctioned, not because of a failed engine.

Also Monday, an S7 Airbus A310 made an emergency landing at the airport of the Crimean city of Simferopol following a technical malfunction, officials said. Several hours later, a Tu-134 plane carrying the Russian navy chief rolled off the runway in Simferopol and broke into pieces. Three officers were hospitalized, the navy said.

Airline experts said though Russia's safety record is not yet up to Western standards, it is far better than the chaotic post-Soviet period, when the state carrier Aeroflot split into hundreds of private carriers, many of which lacked funds to properly maintain and service their planes.

"The safety record has improved a lot in recent years. In not all that long from now, it may be comparable with the West," said David Learmount, an aviation safety expert from the British weekly Flight International.

Economic stabilization and strengthening of official controls helped improve air safety in the 1990s. As well, Russia's recent oil-driven economic boom has bolstered the carriers' earnings and allowed many airlines to replace aging Soviet-era jets with Boeings and Airbuses.