One of this country's workhorse Tu-154 passenger airliners crashed near Siberia's Lake Baikal before dawn today, killing more than 140 people, officials said. It was the worst crash in Russia since the end of the Soviet Union a decade ago.
Russian President Vladimir V. Putin immediately ordered a high-level investigation into the crash of the Vladivostokavia airline plane, and Deputy Prime Minister Ilya I. Klebanov was named to chair the inquiry commission.
According to initial news reports, officials had no warning that anything was amiss before the plane disappeared from the radar on its final approach for a stopover in the Siberian city of Irkutsk, about 2,600 miles east of Moscow, at 2:10 a.m. However, the Itar-Tass news agency quoted unofficial information that the plane fell from a height of about 2,600 feet after several attempts to land.
The plane's final destination was Vladivostok, Russia's main Pacific port seven time zones away from Moscow.
The crash killed 141 adults and five children, including 12 Chinese nationals, a regional aviation department spokesman told the news agency.
Officials initially said all 133 passengers and 10 crew members on board were killed, but later reports put the toll as high as 146.
"There was no sound of the plane falling down, no explosion," said Lyudmila Korneva, a 38-year-old resident of Burdakovka, a small town near the crash site. "But I immediately realized that something terrible had just happened. The street was crowded with people, and ambulance cars and fire engines were rushing back and forth."
The three-engine jet had left the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg almost four hours earlier. Both Irkutsk and Yekaterinburg are major hubs and transfer points for Russia's transcontinental air industry.
Vladivostokavia began in 1994 as a joint stock company, one of the hundreds of carriers spun off after the breakup of the former state monopoly Aeroflot. The airline is the largest carrier in Russia's Far East, operating on 22 domestic and seven international routes, with 16 planes and 33 helicopters.
The distances separating the hinterland cities of Russia are huge, meaning there is no practical alternative to air travel for most of the 16 million residents of eastern Siberia and the country's Far East.
Scores of passenger flights are made daily, and the aging medium-range Tu-154 aircraft are the most common in use. Capable of flying 2,400 miles between refuelings, the aircraft can carry up to 180 passengers. About 925 of the planes were built between 1968 and 1996, and most remain in service in former Soviet and Soviet-allied countries and in some parts of Asia and Africa.
The plane has a checkered safety record. There have been at least 24 crashes of Tu-154s since the early 1970s, according to the Web site Air Safety Online, http://www.airsafetyonline.com.
The plane that went down this morning was a Tu-154M, a more modern version of the aircraft that first entered service in 1984. The plane was manufactured in 1986 and had logged 21,000 hours of flight, according to Itar-Tass.
Post-Soviet Russia has had at least 18 air crashes that each involved more than 10 fatalities, according to Air Safety Online. In the early 1990s, a number of crashes was linked to reckless or poorly supervised pilots, as well as to aging, ill-equipped and--on occasion--under-fueled aircraft.
The worst previous civil aviation disaster in Russia in the past decade was at Irkutsk and also involved a Tu-154. The January 1994 crash killed 125 people.
Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.