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Alert System Down in Air Collision

Tragedy: Germany opens criminal probe as Swiss disagree on whether safety rules were met.

July 04, 2002|DAVID HOLLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

UEBERLINGEN, Germany — A collision-warning system was out of service at the Zurich air traffic control tower when a chartered Russian airliner and a DHL cargo plane collided over southern Germany, Swiss authorities said Wednesday.

The revelation threw Swiss air traffic spokesmen into confusion over whether, under those circumstances, a controller who took a break at the time and left just one colleague responsible for the sector where the Monday night collision occurred had violated regulations. By Wednesday evening it appeared that the action might have gone against routine procedure but did not technically break any rules.

Still, German prosecutors in the city of Konstanz opened a criminal investigation into the collision, which killed all 71 people aboard the two planes, and said they expect to question the flight controllers.

Swiss air traffic control took charge of the flight paths of both planes shortly before the collision because they were flying through the approach zone for Zurich airport. Traffic was light at the time.

Patrick Herr, a spokesman for Swiss air traffic control, said it was "a purely theoretical question" whether the disaster would have been avoided had the system been working. "Many signs point to an exceptionally unlucky combination of circumstances," he said.

Meanwhile, authorities revised the number of Russian children known to have been on the Tupolev-154 passenger jet to 45 from 52. Sergei Kolesnikov, general director of the Kreks travel agency in Ufa, in Russia's Bashkir republic, said seven other people boarded the flight after buying last-minute tickets through a Moscow travel agency. Their ages were not immediately known.

The children, mainly from the political elite of the oil-rich, predominantly Muslim region, were headed for a beach vacation in Spain.

Flags in the Bashkir republic flew at half-staff, and three days of mourning were declared. State television showed parents and other relatives sobbing and comforting one another. One father watched a home video of his daughter, Julia, playing and laughing. "She was so bright and versatile. She gave us so much hope. We were going to send her abroad to study when she graduated," Rim Sufiyanov said. Julia died on the eve of her 15th birthday.

"Daughter, daughter, please forgive me for sending you on this trip," wept a mother, who was not identified by name, stretching her hands toward the sky.

About 140 relatives of the victims prepared to fly today to southern Germany to visit the place where the planes fell, to pray for their loved ones, collect handfuls of earth and place flowers. They were to be accompanied by physicians and psychologists to help them through the ordeal before returning to Russia tonight.

"They just want to see the place where [their children] spent their last moments," said the Bashkir republic's deputy prime minister, Khalyaf Ishmuratov.

Germany said it would waive visa requirements for those who had not had time to obtain proper travel documents.

Visual identification might be difficult in many cases, and relatives will not necessarily see the corpses or body parts.

"We will spare the relatives from having to look at the bodies," police spokesman Michael Kuhn said. "The identifications will be made by autopsy, pieces of clothing or personal possessions. If necessary, DNA will also be used."

Parents were being asked to bring items such as toothbrushes to help with DNA identification.

In Washington, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said President Bush sent condolences "on behalf of the United States to all the families of the victims of this tragic air accident and also to the people of Russia for their loss on this sad day."

In Ueberlingen, near the crash site, police said 10 more bodies were found Wednesday, bringing the total recovered to 38.

Russian investigators were on the scene. They focused on a large section of the Bashkirian Airlines jet's fuselage, which still had some bodies strapped in the seats.

Work crews were preparing to move pieces of the wreckage to the airport in nearby Friedrichshafen for further investigation.

The Russian pilot began descending about 25 seconds before the collision occurred 35,000 feet over Lake Constance, according to German authorities. About the same moment, the DHL Airways Boeing 757 jet, with two people on board, also cut its altitude, apparently in response to its on-board collision avoidance system.

The Russian plane was headed from Moscow to Barcelona, and the cargo plane was en route to Brussels from Bahrain, after a stopover in Bergamo, Italy.

Anton Maag, chief of the Zurich control tower, said Wednesday that the controller who took a break while the on-ground collision warning system was being serviced had violated regulations.

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