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Disappearance of Russian Plane Still Unsolved

December 12, 1995|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — They've tried helicopters, metal detectors, even a psychic, but Russian search parties still have not tracked down the plane that vanished in the wilds of Siberia five days ago.

The plane, carrying 97 passengers and crew members, mysteriously blipped off controllers' radar screens Thursday.

Dozens of rescue teams have prowled the snowy mountains and formidable gorges of Russia's Far East since then, scouring the taiga for signs of the Khabarovsk Airlines plane. At least 21 ships have hunted for wreckage at sea, concentrating on the Tatar Strait between Sakhalin Island and the Russian mainland.

But so far, no one has identified so much as a scrap of metal from the ill-fated TU-154.

The only bulletins have been false alarms. A fire in a forest and an oil slick at sea--both cited as possible signs of a crash--turned out to have nothing to do with the missing plane.

As grieving families wait by their radios, emergency crews have resorted to quizzing hunters who emerge from the craggy territory where the plane was last seen on radar. They have asked fishermen to keep an eye out for splashdown sites. And they have enlisted the help of a psychic, who pinpointed an area near the Samarga River as a possible crash site.

Still, they remain baffled.

Russian officials can offer no explanation for the plane's apparent plunge from its cruising altitude of 34,700 feet. The plane, which carried passengers from Russia and the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan, was heading from Sakhalin Island toward the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk on the mainland when controllers suddenly lost track of it. The pilot did not sound an alarm or signal distress in any way.

"There are no grounds to suggest the accident occurred due to some technical failure," Rudolf Teimurazov, chairman of the Flight Safety Commission, told Russia's Itar-Tass news agency Monday. Officials have also ruled out terrorism.

Russian news agencies reported Monday that rescue crews have divided the search area into 40 sectors, covering a total of 18,000 square miles. Stymied by stormy weather and an early nightfall, they had explored only 28 of the sectors by Monday evening.

The plane's eerie disappearance has underscored the dangers of traveling in the former Soviet Union.

Since the breakup of the state monopoly Aeroflot, nearly 500 airlines have emerged to vie for passengers. Western and Russian aviation officials alike have warned that some of the "babyflot" spinoffs skimp on safety.

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Airlines in the former Soviet Union recorded 5.2 fatalities per million passengers last year--10 times the U.S. rate and seven times the global average.

A day before the TU-154 disappeared, an Azerbaijani plane crashed after takeoff, killing 49 passengers. At least two military helicopters and a cargo plane have also crashed in territories of the former Soviet Union in recent weeks.

And in a move sure to make travel even tougher, Russian air traffic controllers plan to launch a nationwide strike Friday.

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