Russian snowplough driver admits guilt over plane crash that killed Total boss

Vladimir Martynenko (centre), attends a hearing on the accident which resulted in the death of Christophe de Margerie, the chief executive of Total company, at the Solntsevo District Court in Moscow on July 28, 2016.
Vladimir Martynenko (centre), attends a hearing on the accident which resulted in the death of Christophe de Margerie, the chief executive of Total company, at the Solntsevo District Court in Moscow on July 28, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

MOSCOW (AFP) - A Russian snowplough driver on Thursday (July 28) pleaded guilty to causing the fatal 2014 Moscow airport jet crash that killed the head of French oil giant Total.

Total chairman and chief executive Christophe de Margerie, two pilots and a flight attendant died when their Falcon jet was hit by the snowplough during take-off at Moscow's Vnukovo airport on the night of Oct 20, 2014.

Snowplough driver Vladimir Martynenko and the engineer in charge of snow clearing, Roman Dunayev, admitted in a Moscow court to causing the deaths through safety breaches and negligence, at the first full hearin.

Three air traffic controllers who worked that night at the airport pleaded not guilty on the same charges, which carry up to seven years in prison.

Investigators said the Falcon-50EX plane crashed after slamming into the snowplough which had driven onto the runway in breach of rules.

The snowplough driver - who was 60 at the time - had told investigators he did drive onto the runway without waiting for permission from an air traffic controller and lost his sense of orientation after his vehicle lagged behind.

Investigators also said the driver was drunk, while his lawyers said he drank coffee laced with brandy after the crash.

Dunayev, the engineer who led the team, "recognises that he did not supervise the work of his colleagues", his lawyer Leonid Kurakin told journalists at the court.

Investigators said the air traffic controllers failed to warn the pilots that the snowplough had moved on to the runway even though they had time to do so.

The defendants sat with bowed heads as the judge read out the charges, watched by some 20 relatives, lawyers and journalists.

The husband of the French flight attendant submitted a civil claim for 300,000 euros in damages for mental anguish, TASS news agency reported.

The airport and the French company that operated the plane, Unijet, jointly filed claims for damages to compensate for their destroyed property totalling 15.2 million rubles, Kurakin told TASS.

The next hearing was set for Friday, with Vnukovo airport director-general due to give testimony, lawyers said.

Mr De Margerie, who was 63, led Europe's third-largest oil company - and France's biggest in terms of sales and profits - for seven years.

The charismatic business leader nicknamed "the moustache" had close ties to Russia and opposed Western sanctions imposed over the Ukraine crisis.

Mr De Margerie had met then Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev at his country residence to discuss investment just hours before the crash, which came as the oil chief was heading to Paris.

Mr Putin called Mr de Margerie a "true friend of our country" and posthumously awarded him a medal for developing economic and cultural ties.

France is also probing the accident, with the Paris prosecutor's office opening a judicial investigation into involuntary homicide caused by deliberate safety violations or failure to act prudently.