ROSTOV-ON-DON, RUSSIA (AFP) – A Boeing passenger jet operated by the flydubai budget airline crashed in southern Russia early Saturday (March 19), killing all 62 people on board as it tried to land in bad weather, officials said.
The Boeing 737, which flew from Dubai to the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, was reportedly making its second attempt to land at 0050 GMT (8.50am Singapore time) after circling for several hours.
It missed the runway and erupted in a huge fireball as it crashed, leaving debris scattered across a wide area.
“My whole house shook. I looked out into the yard and the sky was all red – it was a shade of red that I have never seen,” eyewitness Yana, who lives near the airport, told AFP.
Russia’s Investigative Committee confirmed that all 55 passengers and seven crew members on board were killed.
It launched a probe into whether technical problems, pilot error, poor weather or a combination of problems were behind the crash.
Flydubai chairman Ghaith al-Ghaith expressed “devastation” over the disaster and sought to head off any “speculation” that the crash was the result of terrorism.
“We do not yet know all the details of the incident but we are working closely with the authorities to establish precisely what happened,” Ghaith said in statement.
A no-frills budget carrier which is a sister firm to Emirates Airlines, flydubai is government-owned and was set up in March 2008.
The passengers on board flight FZ981, which took off from Dubai at 1820 GMT on Friday and had been due to land at 2240 GMT, included 44 Russian nationals, eight Ukrainians, two Indians and one Uzbek, the airline said. They comprised 33 women, 18 men and four children.
The company said the Cypriot pilot and Spanish co-pilot each had nearly 6,000 hours of flying experience.
The five other crew members were from Spain, Russia, the Seychelles, Colombia and Kyrgyzstan.
Inside the international terminal at Rostov-on-Don airport, local residents laid flowers in front of a list of the victims, as shocked relatives tried to digest the news.
“I turned on the news and for some reason thought it was a terrorist attack but it turned out to have been here right at the airport,” said bereaved relative Alexander Chistyakov.
“My brother was fifteen years older than me. He was a succesful surgeon in the local hospital. It is such a loss.”
Footage aired on local media showed a huge fireball engulfing a wide area after the plane came down. The authorities took more than an hour to get the blaze under control, the emergencies ministry said.
State media later showed pictures of rescue workers combing through scattered debris in the driving snow, with the emergencies ministry saying over 850 rescuers and 170 vehicles had been deployed.
Investigators said the plane’s two black boxes had been recovered.
The plane had “skimmed the ground and broke into several pieces”, according to the investigators, with fragments of the Boeing 737 reportedly scattered up to 1.5km from the crash site.
A strong wind warning was in place and it was raining hard at the time of the crash.
Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed his condolences to the families of the victims after being briefed on the crash by his transport and emergency situations ministers, the Kremlin said.
The head of Russia’s aviation agency said there was no doubt about the safety of the runway or facilities at Rostov-on-Don and brushed off any blame directed at the air traffic controllers.
“In accordance with international flight rules the captain of the aircraft takes the decision to land,” Alexandr Neradko was quoted as saying by Russian agencies.
Flights were diverted to Krasnodar airport, 300km south of Rostov-on-Don, with officials saying the airport would stay closed until at least Monday.
Following the crash, a criminal investigation was opened to determine whether any safety regulations were violated and if negligence played any part in the disaster.
“Different versions for what happened are being worked through, among them a mistake made by the crew of the plane, a technical problem onboard, difficult weather conditions and other factors,” Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin said in a statement.
Aircraft manufacturer Boeing said in a statement that it “stands ready to provide technical assistance upon the request of government agencies conducting the investigation.”
Based at Dubai airport, the low-cost airline has a strong safety record, although one of its planes was hit by a bullet as it landed in Baghdad airport in January 2015, prompting multiple companies to suspend flights to the Iraqi capital. No one was hurt in that incident.
Russian airports have a patchy safety history with the fatal private jet crash in 2014 that killed Total oil giant’s boss Christophe de Margerie on take-off in Moscow one of a string of incidents.
The last major aviation tragedy involving Russia was in October last year, when a passenger jet on its way from Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh resort to Saint Petersburg was brought down by a bomb in the Sinai Peninsula.
All 224 people on board, the vast majority of them Russian, were killed, with the Egyptian branch of the Islamic State group claiming responsibility for the attack.
That incident saw Moscow stop flights to Egypt, cutting off one of the most popular holiday destinations for Russians.
Moscow has also banned the sale of package tours to Turkey after Ankara shot down one of its jets in Syria in November.