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Quake Aid Plane Crashes; 78 Die : Soviets Find More Survivors Under Rubble

Times Staff Writer

A Soviet military transport plane carrying rescue workers and relief supplies to victims of the devastating earthquake in northern Armenia crashed Sunday, killing all 78 aboard.

The aircraft, a wide-bodied, four-engine Ilyushin 76, went down as it approached Leninakan, Armenia’s second-largest city and one of the hardest hit by last Wednesday’s magnitude 6.9 temblor, during a massive airlift bringing assistance to the stricken region, according to a government announcement.

The transport apparently collided with a military helicopter in the congested airspace near the Leninakan airport, thus compounding the Armenian tragedy in which tens of thousands of people have died.

Gorbachev Wraps Up Tour

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“What I have seen is a terrible tragedy,” Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev said Sunday night as he left Yerevan, the Armenian capital, after completing a two-day inspection of the rescue and relief efforts there.

“I have been shaken, utterly shaken, by everything that I have seen. It is unbearable to see so many people suffering. I find it difficult even to talk about it. . . . But, at this very difficult time, the Armenian people are showing great courage.”

A somber Gorbachev urged rescue workers to speed up their efforts to find survivors and then to bury the dead as quickly as possible to avoid epidemics.

“Good organization is vital,” he said. “There are still people alive down under the rubble. And we have to get up the dead as well to give them a decent burial.”

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But there was good news, too, as rescue workers continued to find people alive in the rubble of Leninakan, a city of 290,000 people that was 80% destroyed, and in other hard-hit cities and towns.

Sniffed Out Survivors

Heinz Brecht, a Swiss volunteer, told reporters how his team rescued five people from collapsed buildings using specially trained dogs, which listen for and sniff out those buried in the debris. But he said that the work was slow because of the scope of the disaster.

Soviet officials had said in Moscow on Saturday that the known dead totaled between 40,000 and 45,000 in the region’s worst earthquake in centuries. But in Yerevan, Armenian officials told reporters later that 5,000 to 6,000 more bodies are being found each day. Armenian organizations have estimated that the death toll could be as high as 100,000.

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The Soviet Embassy in Washington also said that about 500,000 are homeless and that 6,000 people have been hospitalized. It put the number of rescued at about 1,500.

More than 700 heavy-duty cranes arrived over the weekend to help the rescue workers lift the collapsed concrete walls and ceilings, Gorbachev said, and 200 more are slated to arrive by Tuesday.

After a hesitant and poorly organized start, rescue and relief efforts were reported by Soviet authorities to have moved into full operation Sunday.

Tent Cities Set Up

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Tent cities have been erected by troops to accommodate 300,000 of the half a million homeless, and field kitchens are operating to feed them. Medical teams, working from military field hospitals, continue to bring in hundreds of injured from the ruins of Leninakan, Spitak and Kirovakan and from harder-to-reach outlying areas.

Roads have been reopened into the area, and the railways are expected to be cleared within two days, permitting larger shipments of supplies as well as the planned evacuation of more than 50,000 women and children. Electricity and water supplies have been restored by army engineers.

More than 300 planes, including 80 large military transports like the Ilyushin 76 that crashed, are flying around the clock, ferrying in medicine, food and other relief supplies and evacuating the badly injured. Officials called it a “permanent air bridge” linking the stricken area with the rest of the country.

Collided With Helicopter

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Although the government announcement gave no details of Sunday’s crash, Armenian officials said the plane collided with one of the many army helicopters flying in the area. The helicopter’s fate was not known.

Nine crew members and 69 soldiers aboard the cargo plane were killed in the crash, the government said, but no other details were available.

“With a feeling of profound grief, we express deep condolences to the relatives of those who hurried to help the Armenian nation and earned the eternal gratitude of the Soviet people,” the government said, announcing the crash Sunday evening.

The army newspaper Red Star had warned Sunday that bad weather and heavy air traffic over Leninakan, whose airport was heavily damaged in the earthquake, demanded the greatest skill of both the air crews and the ground staff.

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Dozens of international flights, meanwhile, continued to arrive in Yerevan and in Moscow with donations from around the world. Among those arriving Sunday were planes from the United States, Israel and Mongolia.

Chairman Armand Hammer of Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum flew into Moscow on Sunday with a planeload of supplies that included $1 million in checks and several million dollars in medical supplies.

But Soviet medical authorities said there is still a serious shortage of medical equipment, including kidney dialysis machines needed to treat those suffering from “crush syndrome” after days beneath heavy debris.

Many of the rescue workers appeared to be near exhaustion after working around the clock for four or five days, according to Western reporters flown by the government to Leninakan on Sunday.

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“I am proud of all our people,” Gorbachev said, speaking in an interview with Soviet television. “See how deep their feelings are, what great moral strength they have.”

Lashes Out at Protesters

But Gorbachev lashed out at Armenian nationalists who have attempted to organize anti-government demonstrations in Yerevan to protest what they regard as mismanagement of the relief effort and to demand again that Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian enclave in neighboring Azerbaijan, be transferred to their republic.

Visibly angry, Gorbachev demanded: “What kind of people are these? What is their morality? They seem to be bursting to seize power, and they must be stopped.”

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He rejected rumors, widespread in Moscow’s Armenian community as well as in Yerevan, that the women and children being evacuated from the disaster area are being sent to Siberia, that the children orphaned in the tragedy will be given to Russian families and that the earthquake will be used to break the nationalist campaign to annex Nagorno-Karabakh.

“What kind of morals do these people have?” Gorbachev said. “Well, it is not they who will decide the future of this land.”

On Saturday, a senior army officer ordered the outlawed Karabakh Committee to end a meeting it was holding in Yerevan, according to Armenian sources, and when some of its members refused, he ordered five of them detained under emergency regulations that permit arrest without charge.

Demonstrations demanding that they be released were organized on Sunday, the sources said by telephone from Yerevan, but police and security forces dispersed the protesters using truncheons. The nationalist leaders have now threatened to call a general strike unless the Karabakh Committee members are freed.

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The problem of Nagorno-Karabakh will be solved, Gorbachev said, but “it is being used by political adventurers and demagogues. . . . It is really a struggle for power, and they want to keep power by hanging around the necks of the intelligentsia and the working class.”


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