At least 43 killed in Russian hockey team plane crash
A jet carrying a top ice hockey team crashed after takeoff from the Russian city of Yaroslavl on Wednesday, killing at least 43 people including several foreign stars.
The 18-year-old Yak-42 was flying members of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl ice hockey team to a season-opening match in the Belarus capital Minsk when it went down near Yaroslavl airport, some 300 kilometres (185 miles) northeast of Moscow.
The emergency situations ministry said two other people aboard survived but were in grave condition.
The crash occurred near the site of an annual forum attended by President Dmitry Medvedev to discuss Russia's upcoming election battle.
Among those killed were the coach, Canada's Brad McCrimmon -- a former assistant with the NHL's Detroit Red Wings -- the team's goalie and former Swedish Olympic champion Stefan Liv as well as Slovak ex-NHL standout Pavol Demitra.
Three Czech stars -- Jan Marek, Josef Vasicek and Karel Rachunek -- were also among the dead
Thirty-one-year-old center Marek and 32-year-old defenceman Rachunek were world champions from 2010, while the 31-year-old center Vasicek had a world title from 2005.
The plane began listing to the left only seconds into the afternoon flight and crashed about 500 metres (yards) away from the Tunoshna airport.
Initial reports said the jet may have hit a local radar antenna and the twisted wreckage of the aircraft lay buried in the Tunoshna River as divers searched for signs of life.
"We saw a plane and then heard a boom. There was a huge flame that quickly turned to smoke," said 16-year-old witness Andrei Gorshkov.
Officials initially said that a steward was the only person among 45 passengers and crew members to survive the crash.
But a local hospital surgeon later told Chanel One television that Russian player Alexander Galimov was alive but in critical condition with burns to nearly 90 percent of his body.
The crash revived memories of an August 1979 disaster that claimed the lives of 17 football players from the Tashkent side Pakhtakor.
Russia has experienced another summer full of mishaps that have for the first time also marred the country's once-proud space programme.
Two accidents involving Tu-134 and An-24 jets this summer killed a total of 54 people and prompted Medvedev to call for most of the aircraft to be retired by January 1.
But that move was followed by a series of smaller air accidents as well as a Volga River boat sinking that killed 122 people out on a summer pleasure cruise.
And several subsequent space failures have prompted Russia to ground its most famous rockets in a move that now threatens to leave the International Space Station abandoned for the first time in 10 years.
This dire record has tarnished Medvedev's vision of the modern Russia he promotes in messages ahead of presidential elections next year in which Vladimir Putin -- his more nationalist mentor and prime minister -- could also run.
Medvedev was due to speak at the forum on Thursday and sent his top political adviser Vladislav Surkov to the scene of the disaster.
Conference participants also held a minute of silence while the country's ice hockey season kicked off with a somber message from the deputy head of Gazprom -- the company that sponsors Russia's Continental Hockey League (KHL).
"I propose that we honour the memory of the dead with a minute of silence," Gazprom number two Alexander Medvedev said at the season opening in the Ural Mountains city of Ufa.
The match was later abandoned to applause from the crowd.
Three-time Russian champion Lokomotiv Yaroslavl was founded in 1959 and last won the country's title in the 2002-2003 season.
The team has a strong national following and recently attracted several younger stars from the NHL.
One of those killed included 23-year-old former New Jersey Devils player Alexander Vasyunov -- a Yaroslavl native with many local friends.
"We have been friends since childhood," 24-year-old Dmitry Luchnikov told AFP while recalling his friend's recent decision to play for his home team.
Hundreds of the team's fans converged on Lokomotiv's ice hockey areana in the evening for a sombre candlelight vigil while Russia's main Channel One television interrupted regular broadcasting to discuss the tragedy's impact on society and sports.
© 2011 AFP