A Russian passenger jet burst into flames on Sunday while attempting an emergency landing at a Moscow airport, leaving as many as 41 passengers dead and more injured.
Video from Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport shows the plane bouncing along the tarmac before it suddenly burst into flames. The tail section of the Russian Sukhoi Superjet 100 became engulfed by fire, discharging thick, black smoke as crew members evacuated passengers using emergency slides. Fire engines sped toward the blaze while some passengers were seen fleeing across the tarmac in tears.
The death toll, originally reported as 19, rose sharply as Russian emergency workers painstakingly retrieved the bodies of the dead from the smouldering wreckage.
Early reports indicate that most of those killed were trapped in the tail section of the plane. Russia’s Investigative Committee said two of the victims were children.
“There were 78 people including crew aboard the airliner,” said a government spokeswoman. The latest tally showed that 37 had survived.
No official cause has been given for the disaster. The Investigative Committee said it had opened an inquiry and was looking into whether the pilots had breached air safety rules.
Some passengers blamed bad weather and lightning.
“We took off and then lightning struck the plane,” the Komsomolskaya Pravda daily cited one surviving passenger, Pyotr Egorov, as saying.
“The plane turned back and there was a hard landing. We were so scared, we almost lost consciousness. The plane jumped down the landing strip like a grasshopper and then caught fire on the ground.”
The plane was flying to Murmansk, a Russian city in the Arctic circle, when the pilots reported an emergency onboard and turned back. Aeroflot, the carrier managing the flight, said that the reason may have been an engine fire.
While attempting to land, the plane struck the runway several times, damaging the fuel tanks and igniting the fire in the rear section of the fuselage.
It took the firefighters battling the blaze more than an hour to reach passengers in the tail section.
The Flightradar24 tracking service showed that the plane had circled twice over Moscow before making an emergency landing after just under 30 minutes in the air.
Interfax cited a source as saying the plane had only succeeded making an emergency landing on the second attempt and that some of the aircraft’s systems had then failed.
Aeroflot currently operates 50 Russia-made Sukhoi Superjets in its fleet of 255 passenger aircraft. The carrier has ordered another 100 Superjets from Sukhoi, which is slated to deliver the aircraft between 2019 and 2026.
There have been concerns with the plane’s reliability before the incident. In 2012 a Sukhoi Superjet crashed into a mountain in Indonesia during a sales demonstration flight, killing 37 people. In 2016, a reported 11 Sukhoi jets had been grounded because of issues with the plane’s tail stabiliser.
The Superjet entered service in 2011 and was the first new passenger jet developed in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union.
It has been hit, however, by sporadic concerns over safety and reliability, including a December 2016 grounding after a defect was discovered in an aircraft’s tail section.
Russia’s Investigative Committee has opened a criminal investigation into safety violations leading to the death of two or more people, a common step following mass casualty events in Russia.
Officials have also confirmed that at least 11 people were injured, and some were hospitalised with burns.
The Russian prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, and president, Vladimir Putin, issued condolences to the families of the victims.