Armenian Jet Crashes off Russia 113 Killed

(Reuters/AP)–All 113 passengers and crew on board an Armenian airliner were killed on Wednesday when the plane crashed into the Black Sea off the Russian coast as it tried to land in torrential rain.

Investigators blamed bad weather for bringing down the Airbus A-320–which was trying to land at Sochi–a popular holiday spot in southern Russia. Russian Emergency Situations Ministry spokesman Viktor Beltsov said weather was considered the likeliest cause. He said that the clouds were as low as 100 meters (330 feet) at the time of the crash.

Divers searched storm-churned waters off Russia’s coast for the remains of the 113 passengers. A spokesman for the Russian emergencies ministry said rescue workers had found baggage–life jackets–body parts–pieces of the shattered plane–and a patch of oil floating on the surface of the sea at the crash site.

"According to preliminary information–all people on board are dead," a ministry spokeswoman’said.

Wreckage from the plane was found not far from the shoreline. Sergei Kudinov–the head of the emergency ministry’s southern office–said the fuselage was found at a depth of 400 meters (1,300 feet). Search and rescue teams had pulled 47 bodies from the water so far–emergency officials said; none was wearing a life jacket–indicating they did not have time to prepare for an emergency landing.

Twenty-five boats–many carrying divers–were involved in the search–and a deep-sea robot was to be used to try to recover the plane’s recorders–the emergency ministry said. But Rudolf Teymurazov of Russia’s Intergovernmental Aviation Committee–expressed doubt the recorders could be found because water at the crash site is as deep as 2 kilometers (1.2 miles).

The plane broke up on impact and passengers’ personal belongings and plane fragmen’s were found scattered over an area spreading 1.5 kilometers (a mile) from the crash site. Rough seas–driving rain–and low visibility were hampering the search–Russian news agencies reported.

The plane–operated by Armavia–had been making a short flight of about an hour from the Armenian capital Yerevan. Most of the passengers were Armenian nationals. The airline organized a special flight to take relatives from Yerevan to the site of the tragedy.

About 100 tearful relatives kept an anguished vigil in a waiting hall of the Adler airport just outside Sochi–a resort town that became popular with Russia’s in the Soviet era. One man became hysterical and had to be taken away by ambulance. Sobbing women held handkerchiefs to their mouths–while men’sat silently–their heads in their hands.

Relatives also gathered at the airport in Yerevan. A list of passengers showed 26 had Russian passports and almost all the rest were Armenia’s.

"I was waiting for a call from my mother that she had arrived okay. But she did not phone–so I phoned myself and heard that this accident had happened," Hapet Tadevosyan–32–said as he stood in the Yerevan airport building. "She flew to Sochi to see her sisters–whom she hadn’t seen for 15 years," he said.

Gurgen Serobian–whose 23-year-old fiancee Lusine Gevorkian was an attendant on the flight–wept as he waited at Yerevan airport for a charter flight that was to take relatives of the crash victims to Adler.

Samvel Oganesian said his 23-year-old son Vram and his friend Hamlet Abgarian had been heading to Sochi for vacation. "Why did he go?" Oganesian asked in anguish–over and over again.

Beltsov said the plane vanished from radar screens at 2:15 AM Wednesday (10:15 PM GMT Tuesday) near Sochi–which lies close to the Georgian border. The emergencies ministry said the torrential rain had probably caused the crash after the plane failed to land on its first attempt.

He said it went down while trying to make a second attempt at an emergency landing. However–the Interfax news agency quoted the Russian air control agency as saying that the plane’s crew had not declared any emergency.

"At the moment–we have absolutely no evidence pointing to the possibility of a terrorist act on the plane," Deputy General Prosecutor Nikolai Shepel told Interfax news agency.

An Armavia official said the aircraft had initially been refused permission to land because of the storm–but the airport officials changed their minds. He ruled out a technical failure. "The plane was in ideal technical condition–the crew was well qualified," said Andrei Aghajanov–deputy commercial director of the airline.

Aghajanov said that weather conditions were "certainly" the cause. The plane was manufactured in 1995 and underwent full-scale servicing a year ago–he said.

Armavia is the largest airline in ex-Soviet Armenia and has three Airbus 320s of the kind that crashed. The plane was carrying at least five children and eight crew members.

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