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Criminal Probe Launched Into Deadly Crash Of Aeroflot Plane

Russian Inspectors Probe Plane's Wreckage After Deadly Fire
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WATCH: Russian authorities have released footage of the wreckage of the passenger jet that caught fire during an emergency landing on May 5.

MOSCOW -- Russian authorities said 41 people were killed when a passenger jet burst into flames in an emergency landing at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, and that the pilot said problems started when the aircraft was struck by lightning.

The Sukhoi Superjet SSJ100 operated by national airline Aeroflot was carrying 73 passengers and five crew members when it touched down and sped along a runway on May 5, with huge flames and black smoke pouring from its fuselage.

Speaking to journalists, Transport Minister Yevgeny Ditrikh said 41 people were killed and that their bodies have been recovered. He said 33 passengers and four crew members survived the crash, adding that six of the survivors were in serious condition.

Earlier reports said one crew member and at least two children were said to be among the dead. A passenger who survived said there was "no way out" for people in the rear of the plane.

Ditrikh said Russia saw no reason to ground the SSJ100 after the Sheremetyevo crash.

Meanwhile, Russia's Investigative Committee said both flight recorders had been recovered from the plane.

Committee spokeswoman Svetlana Petrenko said investigators were looking into three main possible causes of the disaster: insufficiently skilled pilots, air-traffic controllers, and technicians who examined the aircraft; a faulty plane, and bad weather.

A criminal case has been opened into the crash, the committee said earlier.

The aircraft took off from Sheremetyevo airport bound for the northern Russian city of Murmansk, but was forced to turn back due to unspecified "technical reasons," according to Aeroflot.

The company said that the plane's engines caught fire on the runway of the airport after making an emergency landing -- not in midair as initially reported.

In an audio recording posted by Russian media outlets, a man identified as the pilot, Denis Yevdokimov, said the plane was struck by lightning, causing problems with systems on board and interrupting communications with the ground.

Yevdokimov said that the return and landing was conducted by the book but that the jet caught fire after it hit the ground. Footage of the crash-landing appeared to show the plane bouncing several times after first touching down.

Passengers were also quoted as saying that the jet was struck by lightning during a thunderstorm. Storms were passing through the Moscow area at the time.

Flightradar24 tracking service showed that the aircraft, Flight SU-1492, circled twice around Moscow and landed after about 45 minutes n the air.

Interfax news agency reported that the plane failed in its first attempt to land because it was still traveling at high speed, and then its automated equipment failed on the second approach, forcing the pilot into a hard landing.

The Russian-made Sukhoi Superjet SSJ100 on fire on the runway in Moscow
The Russian-made Sukhoi Superjet SSJ100 on fire on the runway in Moscow

Videos on social media show passengers plunging down the plane's inflatable evacuation slides and running across the airport's tarmac and grass, some with their luggage in hand, to escape the burning aircraft.

"We started to land and everything happened immediately, instantaneously," survivor Maria Sitnikova told Russian media outlet Snob.

"There was one very powerful blow -- my eyes nearly popped out -- then a second one, a little softer, a third, and then smoke and everything started to burn," said Sitnikova, who said she was in row 10.

She said she saw no panicked stampede when passengers were exiting the plane -- "only smoke" -- but that it seemed people in seats toward the rear had little chance of survival.

"I was asking everybody but we didn't see anyone from the tail among the survivors. They had no way out," Sitnikova said.

Aeroflot said the crew "did everything to save the passengers," who it said were evacuated in 55 seconds, and that a commission has been established "to investigate the causes and circumstances of the incident."

It also published a list of 33 survivors who had been identified.

The plane's manufacturer, Sukhoi Civil Aircraft, said the aircraft had received maintenance last month. The pilot had some 1,400 hours of experience flying the plane, according to Aeroflot.

A number of flights have been diverted from Sheremetyevo to other airports following the crash.

President Vladimir Putin had offered his condolences to the families of the victims, spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

Three days of mourning have been declared in the Murmansk region.

This is the second fatal accident involving the SSJ100, which is widely used in Russia. In 2012, a demonstration flight in Indonesia struck a mountain, killing all 45 people on board.

However, the Emergency Situations Ministry said on May 6 that it did not plan to ground the SSJ100 after the Sheremetyevo crash, according to Russian news agency RIA Novosti.

Moscow has three major international airports, the largest and busiest being Domodedovo, located southeast of Moscow, followed by Sheremetyevo, to the capital's northwest, and Vnukovo, southwest of the city.

In a separate incident on May 6, a Boeing 737 skidded off the runway while landing in Norilsk, in northern Russia, a source in the airport services told Interfax news agency. The source said initial indications were that there were no casualties.

With reporting by TASS, AFP, AP, Reuters, RIA Novosti, Snob, and Interfax