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Russian Airliner Had 50-Second Warning to Avoid Fatal Collision

Disaster: Officials trade charges over who was to blame for crash that killed 71 over Germany.

July 03, 2002|DAVID HOLLEY and JOHN DANISZEWSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

UEBERLINGEN, Germany — A chartered Russian airliner had less than a minute's warning before slamming into a cargo plane over southern Germany, killing 71 people, including 52 children headed for a beach vacation in Spain, authorities said Tuesday.

Swiss air traffic control, which was in charge of the flight paths of both planes involved in the Monday night crash, initially said that it had given the Tupolev-154 nearly two minutes' notice and that the pilot did not begin descending to avoid the DHL cargo jet until a third request.

The Swiss revised their account after the German government agency in charge of investigating air accidents said that the Russian pilot was given only about 50 seconds' warning to change altitude and that he reacted after a second notice.

In this lakeside resort town and in nearby areas, residents recounted the horror of hearing a sound like rolling thunder, then watching flames, airplane parts and bodies fall from the sky. On Tuesday evening, about 400 people attended a memorial service at Ueberlingen's 16th century Cathedral of St. Nicholas.

In the Russian republic of Bashkir, families who had last seen their children Saturday before the flight to Moscow were in shock. They blamed their loss on the last-minute mix-up that caused the children to miss their originally scheduled flight.

"If only they had flown on time, none of this would have happened," the mother of Bulat Biglov, one of the victims, said through tears on Russia's NTV network. She was not identified by name.

Swiss and Russian officials, meanwhile, continued to trade charges over who was to blame.

Anton Maag, chief of the control tower at the Zurich airport in Switzerland, said the initial warning about a minute before the crash was "cutting it close but absolutely acceptable."

Nikolai Odegov, director of Russia's Bashkirian Airlines, denied that the crew of its Tupolev had made any mistakes.

"My theory is that it is the fault of the air traffic controllers," Odegov said in Moscow. "They put the planes on the same path."

Russian officials also rejected the idea that the Tupolev's pilots might have had insufficient English skills.

"The version that the plane ignored the instructions sounds mad to all of us here. This simply cannot be the case because it could never happen," said Sergei V. Rybanov, another Bashkirian Airlines official. "These pilots were no kamikazes. They knew full well what a precious cargo they were carrying, and they would never on Earth risk the lives of the children they had on board."

The children, most between 8 and 16, were mainly from the political elite of the oil-rich, predominantly Muslim republic of Bashkir. Russia's Interfax news agency said 27 of the victims were the sons and daughters of high-ranking officials in the Bashkir government.

"Their trip was an ordinary summertime trip ... to get some sea air, to swim in the sea and bathe in the sun," said Tatyana Y. Ostapenko, 55, director general of the Soglasiye travel agency in Moscow, which booked the flight. "They were scheduled to leave last Saturday, but they missed their original flight to Spain. One of our staffers took them to a wrong airport....But we managed to sort the problem out--at least so we thought back then."

She added: "They were happy to be going, and just a couple of hours from then it turned into the worst nightmare in their lives. The worst and the last."

Some of the wreckage landed in residential areas but apparently caused no injuries, police said.

"It is nearly a miracle that there were no casualties on the ground," Kurt Bodewig, Germany's transportation minister, said at a news conference here.

Police in helicopters scoured the area in search of debris and bodies. The tail section of the Tupolev landed in a field about half a mile from the nearest houses, and the main wreckage of the DHL Airways Boeing 757 cargo plane landed in woods about five miles from Ueberlingen.

By Tuesday afternoon, 800 police officers and 540 volunteers had recovered 26 bodies, including those of the two DHL pilots. The flight data and cockpit voice recorders for both planes, which are vital for crash investigation, also were found, police said.

The German account of the accident said the Russian pilot changed course about 25 seconds before the collision 35,000 feet over Lake Constance. About the same moment that the Russian plane began descending, the DHL plane also cut its altitude, apparently in response to its on-board collision-avoidance system.

The two planes thus flew into each other as both tried to avoid a crash.

The planes were over Germany, but they had been passed over to Swiss air traffic control shortly before the accident because they were flying through an area on the approach to the Zurich airport. Only one Swiss air traffic controller was monitoring traffic, which was so light that his partner was taking a break, said Maag, the Zurich control tower chief.

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