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Officials Investigating Bashkir Airliner Crash In Germany

Ueberlingen, Germany; 2 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- German authorities have recovered the flight recorder of the Russian airliner that collided with a DHL cargo plane above the German-Swiss border just before midnight on 1 July, killing at least 71 people, including 52 children. The airplane was taking the children to a UNESCO-sponsored vacation outside Barcelona, Western and Russian news agencies reported.

"I think it is too early to speculate about the cause (of the plane crash)," said German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. "In any case, what happened shocked all of us. These were children who were joyfully looking forward to their holiday. This is an event which moves us all and which every one of us would prefer not experiencing."

The Russian plane was a chartered Tupolev 154 operated by Bashkir Airlines, based in the Russian republic of Bashkortostan in the Ural region. Sergei Rybanov, an official with the airline's Moscow office, said the flight had been chartered at the last minute from Moscow's Domodedovo airport because the group had missed its scheduled flight from Moscow's Sheremetevo airport the previous day.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Education in the Bashkir capital of Ufa said today that the children aboard the flight came from throughout Bashkortostan and were on their way to Costa Dorada outside Barcelona on a trip organized by the local office of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. She added that the majority of the children were the scions of high-ranking officials in the republican administration.

Russian officials at the Emergency Situations Ministry said that eight of the children were younger than 12 and that the rest were between the ages of 12 and 16.

Swiss air-traffic controllers said that once the Tu-154 entered their airspace, they told it to descend, but there was no immediate response. Anton Magg, chief of the air-traffic control tower in Zurich, said the air-traffic controller gave the first order to descend about two minutes before the collision. "This is normally sufficient," he said.

Magg said that the Russian plane only began to descend after a third request. Magg added that by this time, the emergency collision-warning system on the DHL Boeing 757 had already issued an order to descend, and the pilots are obliged to follow this warning immediately.

A spokesman for Swiss air-traffic control, Patrick Herr, said it is not yet known why the emergency-warning system gave an order to descend when the other plane had already started to descend. "There are two mysteries," Herr said. "Firstly, why the Tupolev pilot didn't react straightaway, and secondly, why the automatic warning system of the Boeing also gave a descent order."

Chris Yates, "Jane's" aviation security editor, told RFE/RL today that, "Russian aviation generally has had a fairly bad reputation. That reputation goes back to the Soviet-era days."

Yates did not, however, place the blame for the crash squarely on the pilots of the Russian plane. "I think there are two possible issues here. One clearly is that there is a possibility that there was some sort of communication-equipment failure or fault on board the aircraft. There is also potential for a language issue."

Yates added that the location of the accident near the German-Swiss border could have also been a factor. "We have to remember that where this accident happened is as the boundary of two flight-information regions -- one for Germany, one for Switzerland -- and at such boundaries there is a handover protocol that is gone through where the air-traffic controller will typically hand off the aircraft to his counterpart in the next flight-information region. If that was going on at the same time as the rest of this was going on, then that could have also given rise to some confusion."

Russian officials were quick to deny reports of possible pilot error today, saying the crew aboard the Tu-154 had years of international flight experience and that the pilot spoke English and would have understood the order to descend. "Western media are saying the crew did not speak English. This is not true. It was one of our most experienced crews," said Andrei Stepanyuk, director of Bashkir Airlines in Moscow. "I am 100 percent sure the pilot made no mistakes," he added.

Aleksandr Neradko, Russia's first deputy minister for air transport, told Russian television that, "The crew was made up of pilots of the very first order, who were very experienced in international flights and had flown to Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates."

Neradko added that the accident was likely the result of human error, but he pointed out that the error "did not just originate in the sky, but also on the ground," a reference to the air-traffic controllers in charge of the flight.

Yuliya Mazanova, head of Moscow's Domodedovo airport press service, said that in addition to the 52 children aboard the Bashkir Airlines flight, there were also 12 crew members and five adult passengers who were chaperoning the group.

Axel Gietz, head of DHL corporate affairs in Brussels, said there were only two people aboard the cargo plane, a British pilot and his Canadian co-pilot, who had more than 15,000 hours of flight time between them.

Investigators have so far recovered several bodies of the 71 victims, as well as pieces of both aircraft and other debris strewn over a 30-kilometer-wide area around Lake Constance. More than 800 rescue workers are searching the area around the shores of the lake, one of the largest in Europe.