A Russian military plane carrying 92 people, including dozens of Red Army Choir singers, dancers and orchestra members, crashed into the Black Sea shortly after takeoff from Sochi on its way to Syria on Sunday, killing everyone on board, Russian authorities said. Earlier, the Russian Defense Ministry said one of its TU-154 Tupolev planes had disappeared from radar screens at 0525 MSK (9.25 p.m. ET), two minutes after taking off from Sochi in southern Russia, where it had stopped to refuel from Moscow on route to Syria.
Ministry spokesman, Major-General Igor Konashenkov, told reporters that nobody had survived. The Tupolev transport plane had 92 people on board, including 84 passengers and eight crew members.
"The area of the crash site has been established. No survivors have been spotted," he said. An unnamed ministry source told Russian news agencies no life rafts had been found, while another source told the Interfax agency that the plane had not sent an SOS signal.
Rescuers unload fragments and remains from a boat, found at the
site of the Tu-154 plane crash near Sochi, Russia, Dec. 25 2016
Russia's RIA news agency, citing an unidentified security source, said preliminary information indicated that the plane had crashed because of a technical malfunction or a pilot error. Another source told Russian agencies that the possibility of a militant act had been ruled out. The weather had been good.
A video from the Black Sea rescue operation is shown below:
TASS reports that weather conditions in the regions were “favorable” to aviation. No civilian flights have been cancelled yet.
In televised comments, President Vladimir Putin, speaking in St Petersburg, declared Dec. 26 a national day of mourning. The jet, a Soviet-era Tupolev plane built in 1983, had been carrying 84 passengers and eight crew members.
Most of the passengers on board were members of the famous Alexandrov Ensemble, better known internationally as the Red Army Choir, 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. Nine Russian reporters were also on board as well as military servicemen.
Russia's Defence Ministry regularly flies musicians into Syria to put on concerts for military personnel. The base they were heading for, Hmeymim, is in Latakia province. It is from there that Russia launches air strikes against Syrian rebels.
Russian Emergencies Ministry members push a cart with remains of Russian
military Tu-154 plane which crashed into the Black Sea
The passenger list released by the defense ministry also includes Elizaveta Glinka, a prominent charity activist and humanitarian worker and member of Putin's advisory human rights council. 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.
Konashenkov said fragments of the plane had been found at a depth of about 70 meters (yards) in the Black Sea about 1.5 km (1 mile) off the coast near the city of Sochi.
“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.
"The search operation is continuing," said Konashenkov. "Four ships, four helicopters, and a plane and a drone are working in the area," he said, saying a military commission had flown to Sochi to look into what happened. Konashenkov said four bodies had been recovered from the sea. Russian news agencies cited a higher figure.
Six ships from Russia's Black Sea fleet were on their way to the crash site, and more than 100 divers were being drafted in to search the area along with a mini-submarine.
Konashenkov said the plane had last been serviced in September and undergone more major repairs in December 2014. He said the pilot was experienced and that the plane had about 7,000 flying hours on its clock.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters it was too early to say what had caused the crash. Putin was being kept constantly informed of the latest developments, Peskov said.
According to Reuters, Russian military investigators said in a statement they had opened a criminal investigation into the crash. The Kremlin said Putin expressed his deepest condolences to those who had lost loved ones in the crash and ordered Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to head a government investigatory commission.
The last big TU-154 crash was in 2010 when a Polish jet carrying then-president Lech Kaczynski and much of Poland's political elite crashed in western Russia killing everyone on board.
Russian news agencies cited Denis Manturov, the Russian Transport Minister, as saying on Sunday it was premature to talk about withdrawing the TU-154 from service.
On Dec. 19, a Russian military jet crashed in Siberia with 39 people on board as it tried to make an emergency landing near a Soviet-era military base. Nobody was killed in that incident, though 32 people were airlifted to hospital.