Russian officials open criminal probe into deadly Moscow plane fire

At least 41 people died when an Aeroflot aircraft made an emergency landing at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport

epa07550566 A handout photo made available by the Moscow News Agency shows the Sukhoi Superjet 100 passenger plane of the Russian airline Aeroflot at Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow, Russia, 06 May 2019. At least 41 people of 73 on board were killed by the fire that broke out during an emergency landing of the Sukhoi Superjet 100 at the Sheremetyevo airport 05 May 2019.  EPA/MOSCOW NEWS AGENCY HANDOUT HANDOUT MANDATORY CREDIT: MOSCOW NEWS AGENCY HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES
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At least 41 people are confirmed to have died when a passenger plane caught fire after making an emergency landing in Moscow on Sunday.

Dramatic video footage that circulated across social media of the plane's landing at Sheremetyevo airport showed flames rising from the tail of the pane and plumes of black smoke billowing as passengers escaped from inflatable slides.

At least six passengers on-board the Aeroflot flight were taken to hospital, health ministry officials told the Tass news agency, which also reported that a US citizen and crew member were among those who have died. Two children are also believed to be among the victims.

The Investigative Committee, a Russian law enforcement agency, has opened a criminal investigation into the violation of flight safety rules.

Emergency services rushed towards the plane with 78 people on-board after it finally halted having skidded across the runway. Smoke continued to steam from the plane after firefighters extinguished the main fire.

"The blaze was devouring the plane,” Alyona Osokina, a witness inside the main terminal, told the Dozhd television network. She described passengers who escaped from the plane making their way towards the main airport building. “This horror and tragedy happened before our eyes," she said.

The Russian-made Sukhoi Superjet was headed for the northern Russian city of Murmansk when it ran into trouble not long after take-off from Moscow. Flight tracking data shows the plane circled Moscow twice before making its emergency landing 45 minutes later.

The reasons for its emergency landing were not immediately clear, but Aeroflot said a "technical reason" was responsible and that the Superjet's engine caught fire during landing.

Denis Evdokimov, the pilot of the Aeroflot flight, told a Russian blog the plane was hit by lightning, which knocked out radio communications and forced him to take direct control of the plane. He said that emergency communications were restored intermittently and that he did not know why the landing had been so abrupt.

The Interfax news agency reported that the SSJ100 plane only succeeded in making its last-minute landing on its second approach. Sources said the plane’s impact on landing was so hard that debris became entangled in the engines which sparked the fire.

The Kremlin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov on Monday morning said that President Vladimir Putin extended his “deep condolences” to those who had lost loved ones in the incident. Mr Peskov added that the president had ordered a thorough investigation to determine what exactly had happened.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has ordered a special committee to investigate the disaster and officials in the Murmansk region where the plane was due to arrive on Sunday evening have reportedly announced a three-day mourning period.

State-run news organisations on Sunday evening were accused by some observers on social media of purposefully omitting the name of the airline in their initial reports, in what some experts said was an attempt to shield Russia’s national airline from blame.

Russia’s aviation industry has suffered several high-profile accidents in recent years. In February last year, 71 people died when Saratov Airlines flight 703 crashed shortly after taking off from Moscow. In 2016, FlyDubai 737 crashed in poor weather near southern Russia, killing all 62 passengers.

This is the second fatal accident involving a SSJ100. In 2012, a demonstration flight in Indonesia struck a mountain, killing all 45 aboard.

However on Monday, RBC, a Russian business news outlet reported that in April a domestic SSJ flight from Moscow was grounded due to a technical failure and that a separate SSJ flight in February was forced to return to Moscow after experiencing technical problems.

RBC said that also in February, an SSJ Aeroflot flight from Moscow to Thessaloniki in Greece returned after take-off because of issues with its hydraulics.