As Russia on December 26 began observing a national day of mourning for 92 people killed in a military plane crash, authorities revealed that many key members of Russia's official armed forces musical ensemble were among the dead.
Russian State Secretary and Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Pankov confirmed that 68 members and staff of the Aleksandrov Ensemble – including choir conductor Valery Khalilov -- were killed early on December 25 when the Tu-154 aircraft crashed into the Black Sea shortly after taking off from Sochi. There were no survivors.
The 33-year-old plane was meant to travel to Russia’s Hmeimim military airbase near Latakia, Syria, where the Aleksandrov Ensemble was to perform a New Year’s concert for Russian airmen.
Pankov said in Moscow early on December 26 that "the ensemble will live" and that it would "continue to remain a symbol of the army and our country."
With the total staff and membership of the musical ensemble numbering 285 people, Pankov said "the losses are very large."
He said Russia's military "will be working very seriously to make up these losses."
In Moscow, mourners early on December 26 were continuing to lay flowers and light candles in front of a Moscow concert hall where the ensemble often performed.
Search And Recovery
Also aboard the ill-fated plane were eight crew members, six other military personnel, nine Russian television journalists, and Elizaveta Petrovna Glinka, a human rights activist and executive director of the Spravedlivaya Pomoshch (Fair Aid) charity fund.
Glinka reportedly was traveling to Syria to deliver medical supplies to Tishrin University Hospital in Latakia.
The state-run TV stations First Channel, NTV, and Zvezda said they each had three staff onboard the flight.
Fragments of the plane were discovered less than two kilometers off the coast of Sochi at depths of 50 to 70 meters.
The plane crashed shortly after taking off from Sochi on the Black Sea (marked on map) where it had stopped for refueling.
By early December 26, only 11 bodies of crash victims had been found and a massive search and rescue operation was also looking for the black box containing the plane's cockpit flight data.
The Russian Geographic Society (RGO) was delivering two manned submersible vehicles to help in the search. The RGO said both underwater vehicles are able to work uninterrupted for eight hours -- one at a depth of 100 meters and the other at a depth of 300 meters.
Within hours of the crash, President Vladimir Putin declared December 26 as a national day of mourning for the victims.
Putin on December 25 expressed "the most sincere condolences to families of our citizens killed this morning."
Putin said: "A thorough investigation of the causes of the crash will be carried out and everything will be done to support the families of those killed."
The Kremlin says Putin ordered Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev "to form and head a state commission to investigate the crash."
Russian Transport Minister Maksim Sokolov, who also is on the investigative commission, said authorities were looking into every possible reason for the crash.
But he said officials had ruled out terrorism.
Medvedev described the crash as a "terrible tragedy."
The flight originated in the capital, Moscow, and had a stopover in Sochi for refueling.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters it was too early to say what had caused the crash.
The Aleksandrov Ensemble is the official army choir of the Russian armed forces (file photo).
The Tu-154 is a Soviet-era plane which has a checkered past in terms of accidents. The plane, which has not been in commercial use since 1994, is still used by the military.
The Tu-154 has been involved in almost a dozen major crashes since 2000, killing more than 800 people, including Poland's then-president Lech Kaczynski near the Russian city of Smolensk in 2010.
Deputy Defense Minister Pavel Popov flew into Sochi on December 25 along with a team tasked with clarifying the circumstances surrounding the crash.
Viktor Ozerov, head of the defense affairs committee at the upper house of the Russian parliament, said he "totally excludes" terrorism as a possible cause of the crash.
In remarks carried by the state news agency RIA Novosti, Ozerov -- without citing any source -- said the crash could have been caused by a technical malfunction or a crew error, but he believes it could not have been terrorism because the plane was operated by the military.
The Interfax news agency cited an unnamed source as saying the plane had not sent an SOS signal.
With reporting by TASS, Interfax, Reuters, AP, AFP, and the BBC