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The Associated Press

MOSCOW (AP) — Investigators on Wednesday searched through smoking wreckage and examined flight data recorders for clues to what caused a passenger airliner to plunge into a Siberian meadow, killing all 145 people aboard.

The Tu-154 jet belonging to the Vladivostokavia airline crashed about 2 a.m. while trying to land at Irkutsk, a major Siberian city 2,600 miles east of Moscow.

It was at a height of 2,800 feet when it made a sudden 180-degree turn and plunged into a meadow surrounded by forest about 20 miles outside Irkutsk, Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu said at the crash site.

“It is so hard to comprehend how it could happen … based on an elementary knowledge of aerodynamics. It is a weird accident,” Shoigu told reporters, with charred and smoking wreckage in the background.

Security officials did not rule out a terrorist act and were searching for signs of explosives, the Interfax news agency said. But the wreckage was found in a fairly compact area, indicating that there was no midair explosion, Interfax quoted Deputy Transport Minister Karl Ruppel as saying.

The ground controllers who handled the last moments of the flight were suspended while the crash was being investigated, ITAR-Tass said.

The ground controllers’ last radio contact with the plane was four minutes before the crash, regional air transport official Yuri Zhuralev told ITAR-Tass.

The 15-year-old plane was leased by the airline from China last year and had been overhauled two months ago at Moscow’s Vnukovo Airport shops, ITAR-Tass said.

There were no reports of casualties among people on the ground.

The plane was carrying 136 passengers — six of them children — and nine crew members, said Emergency Situations Ministry spokesman Vasily Yurchuk. Twelve passengers were foreigners, believed to be from China, officials said.

The plane was en route from Yekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains to Vladivostok, the major port on Russia’s Pacific Coast. It was to land in Irkutsk for refueling and to let some passengers off. The amount of fuel at the crash site indicated that the plane had not run short, ITAR-Tass said.

Flight attendant Yulia Zaikina, who flew on the ill-fated plane to Yekaterinburg before it took off for Irkutsk, was devastated when she heard news of the crash. She said among the crew members killed was a married couple who left behind seven children.

“We flew on the crew on this plane to Yekaterinburg, and we watched it go on. Before the flight we wished our colleagues a safe flight,” she said.

“We don’t know what to do, how to be. … But we don’t blame anyone, it was technical malfunctions. When we flew, the plane was in fine condition,” she said.

Relatives and friends of the passengers spent a harrowing, tearful night in the airports at Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok. When they heard the announcement of no survivors, most went home or flew to Irkutsk to identify bodies, with the promise of $414 in insurance payments from the airline, Interfax said.

Alexander Semyonov, whose brother was among the passengers, said he had traveled to the Yekaterinburg airport from an outlying district.

“Now I’m flying to Irkutsk to collect the remains. I’ll bury him myself,” Semyonov said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin declared a day of mourning for Thursday and ordered formation of an investigation commission.

The three-engine Tu-154, first put into commercial service in 1972, is the workhorse of Russia’s domestic airlines and is widely used throughout the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, as well as in China.

Copyright 2001 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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