92 feared dead as Russian plane with military band crashes en route to Syria
Rescue helicopters have discovered debris in the Black Sea from a Russian military transport plane which went off radar en route to Syria. Most of the passengers on the Tu-154 were members of the famous Alexandrov Ensemble army choir.
According to preliminary reports, the Tupolev transport plane had 92 people on board, including 84 passengers and eight crew members. It went missing over the Black Sea at 2:40 GMT shortly after refueling at an airport near Sochi.
Most of the passengers on board were members of the Alexandrov Ensemble, the official choir of the Russian Armed Forces, the Russian Defense Ministry said. They were travelling from Moscow to the Russian military base Khmeimim near Latakia, Syria to take part in a Christmas celebration with troops deployed there. The head of the choir, conductor and composer Valery Khalilov, is among the 65 members of the ensemble presumed dead in the accident.
Crews from Channel One Russia, NTV, and Zvezda (the official media outlet of the Russian Defense Ministry), each with three members, were on board as well, the outlets confirmed.
The passenger list released by the defense ministry also includes Elizaveta Glinka, a prominent charity activist and humanitarian worker. She is best known by her blogger nickname “Doctor Liza.” Some reports initially said she may have deplaned in Sochi, but the Presidential Council for Human Rights confirmed that she was on board.
Glinka was best known for aiding children with serious conditions like cancer, homeless people, and other vulnerable individuals. In the past few years, she organized humanitarian missions to conflict zones, including eastern Ukraine and Syria. For her efforts, she was awarded the Order of Friendship in 2012, the fifth highest state award in Russia.
Helicopters dispatched from Sochi to search for the aircraft have discovered the crash site, the ministry reported.
“Hull fragments of the Tu-154 plane operated by the Defense Ministry have been found about 1.5 km off the Black Sea coast of Sochi at a depth of 50-70 meters,” the ministry said in a statement.
Around 3,000 people are involved in a search and rescue operation in the 10.5 square kilometer area, the defense ministry announced. The 24/7 operation is being conducted by 27 vessels with 37 divers on board, unmanned flying vehicles, and four helicopters, officials added.
So far, no survivors have been found in the sea, local rescue services told Interfax.
TASS reports that weather conditions in the regions were “favorable” to aviation. No civilian flights have been cancelled yet.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has expressed his condolences to the relatives of those onboard the ill-fated plane.
“I want to express my most sincere condolences to the families of our citizens who died in the plane crash in the Black Sea this morning. The government will do everything to provide support. Tomorrow will be a national day of mourning in Russia,” Putin told journalists in St. Petersburg.
Similar reaction poured in from the international community as well. “I express our sorrow to Russia – an important partner of Italy,” Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano said as quoted by RIA.
His words were echoed by other high-ranking international officials, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “In her [Merkel] thoughts, she is with the relatives of the deceased,” vice-government spokesperson Ulrike Demmer announced.
Meanwhile people on social media are also expressing their grief over the tragedy.
“A terrible catastrophe. Condolences to the family and friends of the victims,” one tweet said.
“I express my condolences to the families of those killed in a plane crash! Eternal memory [to them]...!” another person wrote.
The Tupolev Tu-154 is a three-engine medium-range transport plane designed in the 1960s. It is capable of carrying up to 180 passengers, depending on the version. There are about 50 aircraft of this type remaining in operation throughout the world, with the Russian Air Force having the biggest fleet.
The plane that crashed near Sochi was a Tu-154B-2 with registration number RA-85572. The passenger capacity was boosted to 180. The aircraft has been in service since 1983, according to the online registry russianplanes.net. The defense ministry said the plane spent 6,689 hours in flight.
Over the decades, there have been around four dozen fatal incidents involving the aircraft, most of which were due to pilot error or improper maintenance. One of the most widely publicized crashes happened in 2010 near Smolensk, Russia, when a Tu-154M of the Polish Air Force carrying Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his entourage crashed in foggy weather, killing all 96 people on board.