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Moscow plane fire: reports claim jet was struck by lightning

Russian authorities have said the deadly fire onboard an Aeroflot passenger jet was probably caused by pilot error, a technical malfunction or “adverse weather conditions”, apparently referring to reports that lightning struck the plane after takeoff.

Emergency workers said on Monday they had removed 41 bodies from the scorched tail section of the Russian-made Sukhoi Superjet 100, confirming Sunday’s fire at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport as Russia’s deadliest aviation accident in several years.

The country’s transport minister has said there is no reason to ground the fleet of Sukhoi aircraft, which is the leading civilian passenger jet developed in Russia since the days of the Soviet Union. The jet makes up one-fifth of the fleet at Aeroflot, the national carrier.

Regional carrier Yamal Airlines, the country’s second biggest operator of the Superjet after Aeroflot, said on Monday it was cancelling its planned purchase of 10 of the planes, but cited high servicing costs, not safety concerns.

Two children were among the 41 killed on the plane, which was flying to the Arctic city of Murmansk when it released a distress call shortly after takeoff and turned back to Moscow. Fire engulfed the plane’s tail section during an emergency landing after the aircraft struck the runway several times, igniting its fuel reserves.

Video taken from inside the plane showed panic as flames enveloped the right engine and wing and smoke began filling the cabin.

Tatyana Kasatkina, a flight attendant who forcibly evacuated passengers, told the Russian news website Baza: “You could see the fire [outside]. People were yelling that we’re burning but there was no fire inside of the plane […] I pushed the door open with my leg and grabbed the passengers so that they didn’t delay during the evacuation. I grabbed them by the collar.”

Some passengers were shown in footage of the evacuation carrying luggage, including large backpacks and rolling suitcases, that they had apparently retrieved from overhead cabins.

The pictures raised questions in Russian media of whether the rush to retrieve hand luggage had put lives at risk by slowing the evacuation from the burning plane. Investigators have said they would review the behaviour of pilots and flight crew during the accident, but have not indicated that the evacuation was in any way mishandled.

Crew members said it was hit by hail while flying through clouds near Sheremetyevo airport, before apparently being struck by lightning.

“A bright flash and a clap,” the pilot Denis Yevdokimov said, describing the alleged lightning strike. The plane lost all communications and its electronic flight system failed, he said.

Video of the landing showed the plane bouncing along the tarmac before bursting into flames. The tail section became consumed by fire, discharging thick, black smoke as passengers were evacuated using emergency slides. Fire engines sped towards the blaze as some passengers were seen fleeing across the tarmac in tears. Some were carrying luggage they had apparently retrieved from overhead cabins.

The death toll was originally reported as one, but rose sharply as emergency workers painstakingly retrieved the dead from the smouldering wreckage.

Reports have indicated most of those killed were in the tail section. A seating chart showed all but one of the passengers killed were seated behind row 10. It took firefighters more than an hour to reach passengers in the tail section.

“There were 78 people including crew aboard the airliner,” said a government spokeswoman. The latest tally showed 37 had survived.

According to the Flightradar24 tracking service, the plane circled twice over Moscow before making an emergency landing after just under 30 minutes in the air.

The Interfax news agency cited a source as saying the plane succeeded in making an emergency landing on the second attempt and that some of the aircraft’s systems then failed.

Aeroflot operates 50 Sukhoi Superjets in its fleet of 255 passenger aircraft. The carrier has ordered another 100, which are scheduled to be delivered between 2019 and 2026.

There have been previous concerns over the plane’s reliability. In 2012 a Superjet crashed into a mountain in Indonesia during a sales demonstration flight, killing 37 people. In 2016, a reported 11 Sukhoi jets were grounded because of issues with the plane’s tail stabiliser.

The model entered service in 2011 and was the first new passenger jet developed in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Russia’s investigative committee has opened a criminal inquiry into safety violations leading to the death of two or more people, a common step after mass casualty events in Russia.

Officials have confirmed that at least 11 people were injured, including some hospitalised with burns.

The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, offered his condolences to the families of the victims.

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