44 killed in plane crash; 8 survive

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) — An aging Russian airliner went down in heavy fog and burst into flames just short of a runway in northwestern Russia, killing 44 people in a crash that officials blamed on pilot error. Eight people survived, dragged from the burning wreckage by locals.

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Emergency workers and investigators search the wreckage of Russian plane Tuesday that crashed late Monday near the city of Petrozavodsk. The passenger jet crashed just short of a runway whose fog lights had failed, killing 44 people, officials said.

The RusAir Tu-134 plane had taken off from Moscow and was moments from landing at the Petrozavodsk airport when it slammed into a nearby highway just before midnight Monday, Emergencies Ministry spokeswoman Oksana Semyonova told The Associated Press.

Preliminary information shows the crash was caused by the jet’s pilot missing the runway in adverse weather conditions, Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov said Tuesday.

Russia’s top investigative agency said it was also looking into whether technical problems with the 31-year-old plane might have contributed to the crash. There were no suspicions of foul play.

The plane’s approach was too low, so it clipped a tree and then hit a high-power line — causing the airport’s runway lights to go off for 10 seconds — before slamming into the ground, Sergei Izvolsky, a spokesman for the Russian air transport agency, told the AP.

The Emergencies Ministry said 44 people were killed, including four with dual U.S. and Russian citizenship. Local residents rescued the eight survivors, including a mother, her 9-year-son and 14-year-daughter. They were hospitalized in critical condition in Petrozavodsk.

Petrozavodsk is near the Finnish border, about 400 miles northwest of Moscow. The plane crashed about 100 yards from a small village, but no casualties were reported on the ground.

Speaking from the crash site, the federal air transport agency chief, Alexander Neradko, said the plane appeared to be intact when it hit a 50-foot pine tree. “There was no sign of a fire or explosion on board the plane before the impact,” he said.

Sergei Shmatkov, an air traffic controller who oversaw the plane’s approach, told lifenews.ru that visibility near the airport was bad — close to the minimum level at the time of the crash — but the pilot still decided to land.

“The crew continued their descent at a moment when they already should have begun a second run,” he said.

Shmatkov said he ordered the crew to abort the landing the moment the runway lights went off but it already was too late.

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