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Midair Jet Collision Kills 71

July 02, 2002|JOHN DANISZEWSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — A chartered Tupolev-154 airliner ferrying Russian teenagers to Spain for summer vacation collided late Monday with a DHL Boeing 757 cargo plane high above southern Germany, killing at least 71 people and spreading burning debris over a wide area near the shores of Lake Constance.

About 50 schoolchildren were among the victims, Gennady Pirogov, deputy director of Bashkirian Airlines, told The Times today. A passenger list showed that most were between 13 and 16.

"They were a wonderful lot--all young and pretty and happy to be going abroad," said an anguished Tatiana Ostapenko, director of the Soglasiye travel agency, which sent the youths on the plane.

She said the teens were on the flight only because they had missed their original flight Saturday because they had shown up at the wrong Moscow airport. They were bound for a coastal resort in the Spanish town of La Pineda, she said, with four adult supervisors.

"I saw them off last night, and they were on Cloud Nine.... And this morning, 50 young lives ruined because of some stupid mistake!"

It was an extremely rare calamity: two large aircraft crashing into each other at an altitude of about 35,000 feet. The collision took place near the area where Germany, Austria and Switzerland meet, raising questions about whether poor coordination among air traffic controllers might have played a role.

A German official quoted by news agencies today said the Russian aircraft had failed to heed warnings to lower its altitude to avoid a collision.

"We have to assume right now that this was a misunderstanding," said Baden-Wuerttemberg state Transport Minister Ulrich Mueller. Although the DHL pilot tried to change course, it was too late, he said.

German authorities said the two aircraft had just been handed off to Swiss air traffic controllers when the accident occurred, but there was no immediate comment from Swiss officials.

With any collision at such a height, chances of survivors are nil. Rescue workers began recovering bodies of some of the victims shortly after the 11:43 p.m. crash, said Wolfgang Wenzel, a spokesman for police in the German city of Tuebingen.

Most of the victims were from the Bashkirian airliner. A statement today from the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry said that the Tupolev-154 had carried 57 passengers and 12 crew. The DHL plane, en route from Bahrain to Brussels, carried only a two-man crew. Axel Gietz, head of corporate affairs at the DHL delivery service in Brussels, identified them as British pilot Paul Phillips and Canadian co-pilot Brant Campioni.

Bashkirian Airlines Flight BTS 2937 originated at Moscow's Domodedovo airport and was bound for Barcelona. It departed Moscow at 10:50 p.m. Monday. If it had not crashed, it would have been due to return to Moscow as BTS 2938 at 8:50 a.m. today Moscow time.

Bashkirian Airlines is one of the carriers that emerged from the breakup of Aeroflot after the collapse of the Soviet Union and is regarded as reasonably safe. The airline is based in Ufa, the capital of the Russian Federation republic of Bashkir in the southern Ural Mountains.

The explosion that followed the collision was easily visible from the ground, according to witnesses.

"I heard a giant crash, and then it was as if the sky was burning," Klaus Barinka, the captain of a ferry, told the German news agency DPA.

Recovery teams rapidly fanned out as burning parts rained down along the northwestern shore of Lake Constance, known in German as the Bodensee, about 160 miles south of Frankfurt. The pieces set houses, trees, a farm and a school on fire in the towns of Owingen and Ueberlingen.

Parts of bodies and pieces of aircraft were strewn for miles close to the shore, and a "black box"--either a flight data or cockpit voice recorder--was reported recovered, German television said.

Christian Retzlaff of The Times' Berlin Bureau and Sergei L. Loiko of the Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

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