Russia to pay last respects to ice hockey team

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The Russian city mourning the loss of its ice hockey team in a plane disaster will pay its last respects with a memorial ceremony at the team's stadium, the regional governor said Friday.

An ageing Yak-42 plane carrying three-time Russian champions Lokomotiv Yaroslavl -- a popular team with several ex-NHL stars on its roster -- crashed on Wednesday near Yaroslavl, 300 kilometres (185 miles) northeast of Moscow.

The public are invited to pay their last respects in the team's home arena starting 8:30 am (0430 GMT) on Saturday, the governor of the Yaroslavl region, Sergei Vakhrukov, told journalists.

Fans were expected to travel from other Russian regions to attend. "Lots of neighbours will come to us," he said.

A Russian Orthodox funeral service for 17 victims will be held from 6:00 am (0200 GMT) before the public ceremony, a spokesman for the regional diocese told AFP, while the first burials will follow later that day.

The bodies of the three Czech players, Jan Marek, Josef Vasicek and Karel Rachunek, were to be flown home on Friday afternoon, an emergency ministry spokesman told the RIA Novosti news agency.

Russian player Alexander Kalyagin was to be buried in his hometown of Chelyabinsk on Saturday, the regional governor said in a statement.

Fans, many wearing team scarves, have piled flowers and lit candles outside the team's Arena-2000 home stadium in a spontaneous outpouring of grief following the crash.

The accident, which killed 43, was the worst sporting disaster in the country's recent memory, claiming the lives of several international players who played in the National Hockey League and previously won Olympic medals.

The crash's two survivors -- player Alexander Galimov and crew member Alexander Sizov -- are being treated in Moscow.

Galimov was still alive on Friday, Vakhrukov confirmed, calling him by his nickname Sasha, with hopes that he would survive despite suffering serious burns.

"We believe that Sasha has a chance of making it," he said.

Galimov was in an "extremely serious condition" with burns to 90 percent of his body, a spokesman for the Moscow burns centre told RIA Novosti.

The plane's black boxes were sent to Moscow overnight and the interstate aviation committee that investigates air accidents confirmed in a statement that it had been able to open them and find recordings of the fatal flight.

The plane's engines "were working until collision with obstacles," it said in a brief initial findings.

Officials have so far blamed the tragedy on pilot error and aircraft malfunction -- the usual suspects in past tragedies -- and President Dmitry Medvedev has demanded that aviation companies improve their safety standards.

© 2011 AFP

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