RUSSIAN PLANE DISASTER Aircraft goes down in Egypt's volatile Sinai Peninsula, killing 224 on board
A Russian passenger plane carrying more than 220 people crashed Saturday in the Sinai Peninsula more than 20 minutes after takeoff from a Red Sea resort popular with Russian tourists, Egypt's Ministry of Civil Aviation said.
Egyptian security and military officials told the Associated Press rescuers found no survivors in the wreckage. The plane had taken off with 217 passengers and seven crew members. A security official who spoke to Reuters claimed at least 100 bodies have been recovered so far.
The aircraft's flight's recorders, or "black box," also was recovered, Fox News reported, citing Egyptian officials.
A ministry statement said Egyptian military search and rescue teams found the wreckage of the passenger jet in the remote mountainous Hassana area 44 miles south of the city of el-Arish, an area in northern Sinai where Egyptian security forces are fighting a burgeoning Islamic militant insurgency led by a local affiliate of the extremist Islamic State group.
The plane, an Airbus A-321 operated by Russian airline Kogalymavia and branded as Metrojet, according to the aviation ministry, took off from Sharm el-Sheikh shortly before 6 a.m. for St. Petersburg in Russia. It disappeared from radar screens 23 minutes after takeoff.
The Egyptian officials said the aircraft was cruising at 36,000 feet when contact with air traffic controllers was lost. Flight-tracking service FlightRadar24 said the plane was losing altitude at about 6,000 feet per minute before the signal was lost, Reuters reported.
Ayman al-Muqadem, an Egyptian official with the government's Aviation Incidents Committee, said the plane’s pilot, before losing contact, had radioed that the aircraft was experiencing technical problems and that he intended to try and land at the nearest airport. The aircraft crashed at a site near the el-Arish airport, he said.
It was not immediately possible to independently confirm that technical problems caused the plane to crash.
Earlier, al-Muqadem told local media that the plane had briefly lost contact but was safely in Turkish airspace.
Adel Mahgoub, chairman of the state company that runs Egypt's civilian airports, said except for three Ukrainian passengers all on board were Russian citizens.
An Egyptian cabinet statement said the 217 passengers included 138 women, 62 men and 17 children.
A security officer at the crash site who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity described it as “tragic.”
“A lot of dead on the ground and many who died (were) strapped to their seats," the officer said. "The plane split into two, a small part on the tail end that burned and a larger part that crashed into a rock. We have extracted at least 100 bodies and the rest are still inside."
Egyptian Prime Minister Sherif Ismail was heading to the crash site with several cabinet ministers on a private jet, Egypt’s tourism ministry said, according to Reuters.
Mahgoub said the aircraft had successfully undergone technical checks while at Sharm el-Sheikh's airport. A technical committee from the company was headed to Sharm el-Sheikh to collect security camera footage of the plane while it sat at the airport, including operations to supply it with fuel and passenger meals as well security checks, he said.
Airbus said the aircraft was 18 years old and had been operated by Metrojet since 2012, Reuters reported. The plane had accumulated around 56,000 flight hours in nearly 21,000 flights.
Russian media said the airliner was a charter flight under contract with the Brisco tour company in St. Petersburg.
Separately, Russia's top investigative body opened its own investigation into the crash.
Militants in northern Sinai have not to date shot down commercial airliners or fighter-jets. There have been persistent media reports that they have acquired Russian shoulder-fired, anti-aircraft missiles. But these types of missiles can only be effective against low-flying aircraft or helicopters. In January 2014, Sinai-based militants claimed to have shot down a military helicopter; Egyptian officials at the time acknowledged the helicopter had crashed, but gave no reason.
Russian television showed scenes of relatives and friends gathering at St. Petersburg's Pulkovo airport, awaiting word on the fate of their loved ones. Russian President Vladimir Putin declared Nov. 1 a national day of mourning, according to a statement posted on the Kremlin's website.
Two of the passengers on the Metrojet flight, Elena Rodina and Alexqander Krotov, were newlyweds, a friend of the couple told the AP at a hotel near the airport. They were both 33.
Yulia Zaitseva said Rodina “really wanted to go to Egypt, though I told her ‘why the hell do you want to go to Egypt?’”
“We were friends for 20 years,” she said. “She was a very good friend who was ready to give everything to other people. To lose such a friend is like having your hand cut off.”
She said Rodina's parents feel “like their lives are over.”
Roughly three million Russian tourists, or nearly a third of all visitors in 2014, come to Egypt every year, mostly to Red Sea resorts in Sinai or in mainland Egypt.
“It is too premature to detect the impact this will have on tourism. We need to know what happened first,” Tourism Ministry spokeswoman Rasha Azazi told the AP.