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Jet Crash at Air Show in Ukraine Kills 78

Accident: The two crew members eject safely. More than 100 in the audience are injured.

July 28, 2002|ROBYN DIXON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — An aerobatics stunt went horrifically wrong in Ukraine on Saturday as a fighter jet plunged to the ground, sliced through a crowd of spectators and exploded, killing at least 78 people in the world's deadliest air show disaster.

The SU-27's two crew members ejected to safety, but 115 others on the ground were injured. Authorities said they expected the death toll to increase.

Dozens of bodies lay sprawled on the Sknyliv airfield in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv after the crash shattered a serene summer day. Many others sat dazed and bloodied. The air was filled with the screams and cries of panicked or injured people.

People rushed to ambulances holding limp children in their arms, and others made announcements over the public address system calling for loved ones to come forward.

A woman shook a motionless body lying on the ground, repeating her name, "Nadya, Nadya."

Ukrainian President Leonid D. Kuchma flew to the scene, immediately setting up a government commission to investigate and vowing that those responsible would be brought to justice.

Hours later, Kuchma fired the commander of the Ukrainian air force, Col. Gen. Viktor Strelnikov. The commander of the 14th Air Force Division also was dismissed; there was no explanation, however, on whether safety guidelines had been breached.

Officially, the Defense Ministry said it was too early to say what caused the crash. But Sergei Babakov, a Defense Ministry spokesman speaking in a phone interview with The Times from the capital, Kiev, said the most likely cause was engine failure as the plane flew close to the ground.

"The pilots were helpless--they could not do anything with the plane, and the only thing they had left was to eject. That saved their lives," he said. He added that human error had not been ruled out.

The reputation of Ukraine's military was dented severely last October after 78 people aboard a Russian passenger jet were killed when the plane was hit by a stray Ukrainian missile fired during Black Sea military exercises. Ukrainian authorities at first emphatically denied responsibility.

In Saturday's disaster, Russian television stations aired terrifying footage of the plane sinking dramatically after it failed to come out of a difficult aerobatics roll, brushing a tree, clipping another plane and hitting the runway, where it hurtled on its wing and nose, spraying shrapnel at spectators.

Witnesses described human limbs being hurled through the air as the plane sheared through the spectators.

About 1,500 people had gathered for the air show to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the 14th Air Force Division, based at Lviv.

Svetlana Bachinskaya, 34, made a spur-of-the-moment decision to go to the air show with two of her sons--Mikhail, 7, and Roman, 12, both eager to attend.

She had begun moving her sons toward the exit shortly before the crash, but they begged her to stay for the heavy plane aerobatics.

"So we sat down on the grass, without going back to the center of the field," she said. "And that saved our lives.

"God, I am so grateful that we moved away from the place where it all happened. If we had stayed where we were originally seated, we would have been killed for sure," she said, crying.

"What we saw next was a sheer nightmare. The plane had already flown above us twice, and this time it was coming down on us with a horrible unbearable noise, flying at a very low altitude, right above people's heads.

"Then all of a sudden, there was an unnatural silence and the plane started to clumsily tilt to the left."

After the plane exploded, there was a wave of heat, as if she had been pushed into a sauna, she said.

"And there was stuff in the air--pieces of metal, debris, people," she said. "It was the worst sight I have ever seen in my life." Vladimir Dzhas, 12, who was with his father, Vasily, when the plane crashed, at first thought that the massive fireball was part of the show, "just like one of those explosions that they show on TV, not for real.

"But when I looked at my dad and saw that he was standing all pale, I realized that something terrible happened. I have never seen my father as pale as that. And then I felt really scared.

"I saw many people in panic. They did not know what to do and were running around screaming. There were a lot of people on the ground. I have never seen so much blood in my life."

In the seconds after the crash, he said, it was "like in a silent movie--the plane, the people and the smoke. And then it felt like someone took cotton pads out of my ears. All of a sudden it was very loud, and the screams of people around us were tearing my ears apart."

Speaking to the local television station in Lviv, President Kuchma said he would consider banning air shows because of the crash.

"People should deal with their concrete military activity," he said. "No such shows should take place."

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