A military plane carrying members of a renowned Cold War-era musical ensemble that was going to perform for Russian servicemen at a Syrian air base crashed into the Black Sea early Sunday, apparently killing everyone aboard, officials said.
The flight also carried nine journalists and a prominent Russian philanthropist. Authorities initially said they did not believe terrorism was the cause, but later said they had not ruled it out.
The Defense Ministry’s news service told The Times that all 92 people aboard the Tupolev-154 plane are presumed dead. The flight had originated in Moscow and stopped at the Adler airport near the city of Sochi to refuel. It disappeared from radar and crashed two minutes after takeoff from Adler, the ministry said.
Debris from the plane was found at a depth of 160 to 230 feet about a mile offshore, the Emergency Situations Ministry said. On Sunday, the temperature of the Black Sea was about 50 degrees, which makes hypothermia inevitable after about an hour in the water, it said.
By Sunday afternoon, there were reports that at least 10 bodies had been retrieved from the water.
Russian officials said a pilot’s mistake or a technical malfunction were among the possible causes of the crash.
“I completely rule out a terrorist attack,” Viktor Ozerov of the Federation Council Committee on Defense and Security told the Sputnik news agency.
Later, however, Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov, who heads a commission investigating the crash, said it was premature to rule anything out.
“The investigative committee is looking at various theories. Naturally, it considers the entire spectrum and any possible reasons that might have led to the crash. It is too early to speak about a terrorist attack,” he said, according to the official Tass news agency.
According to the Defense Ministry, those on the flight included nine journalists with pro-Kremlin NTV, Channel One and Zvezda television networks and philanthropist Elizaveta Glinka, better known as Dr. Lisa. Glinka conducted humanitarian missions to war zones and ran clinics for cancer patients, homeless people and the terminally ill.
“We never know whether we’ll come back home alive, because war is hell on Earth,” Glinka said in early December in the Kremlin after receiving a state award from President Vladimir Putin.
On Sunday, she was going to donate medical drugs to a hospital in the western Syrian city of Latakia, the Defense Ministry said.
The largest group of passengers were 64 members of the Alexandrov Ensemble, the army’s official dance and choir company. They were planning to perform at the Hemeimeem air base near Latakia, the Defense Ministry said in a statement. The list included the ensemble’s conductor, Valery Khalilov.
Active since 1928 and founded by the author of the Soviet national anthem, the Alexandrov Ensemble — informally known in the Soviet era as the Red Army Chorus — was immensely popular. It toured the world performing Russian folk songs, World War II anthems and patriotic music and was dubbed “Russia’s singing weapon.”
The choir’s rendition of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” at the opening of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi became an online sensation.
The ensemble consisted of 100 to 120 members depending on the type of performance, including a choir, a dance troupe and an orchestra. Because the performance at the air base was going to be mostly a cappella, only the choir and a few dancers were aboard the plane, Russian media reported.
“The orchestra did not fly because [the choir] was supposed to use pre-recorded music,” Sergei Khlopnikov, a choir singer who did not board the plane because of his daughter’s illness, told the Interfax news agency.
The air base was built shortly before Russia started airstrikes on armed groups opposed to Syrian President Bashar Assad in September 2015. The raids propped up Assad’s government and helped his forces regain key areas, including Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.
Putin declared Monday a day of mourning and appointed Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to head an investigation into the crash.
Medvedev expressed condolences to the families and colleagues of the victims.
“They flew to Syria with a very kind and peaceful mission,” Medvedev said in a statement. “All the circumstances of what happened will be thoroughly investigated, and everyone affected by this tragedy will receive help.”
The three-engine Tupolev-154 is Russia’s most mass-produced passenger airliner. It can carry as many as 180 passengers. Most of Russian airlines have replaced the noisy Tupolevs with newer aircraft, but some government agencies, including the Defense Ministry, have continued to use retrofitted planes.
A Tu-154 with Polish President Lech Kaczynski and 96 people aboard crashed in Russia’s Smolensk region in 2010. Russian officials concluded that bad visibility in thick fog caused the crash.
In 2004, a group linked to Chechen separatists bombed a Tu-154, killing all 46 people aboard.
Mirovalev is a special correspondent.
11 a.m.: Updated with authorities not ruling out terrorism, 10 bodies found.
7:05 a.m.: Updated throughout with staff reporting.
5:18 a.m.: Updates to say there appear to be no survivors
2:20 a.m.: This article was updated with officials ruling out terrorism.
1:05 a.m., Dec. 25: This article was updated with findings on the scene.
11:35 p.m.: This article was updated a new number of passengers.
11:25 p.m.: This article was updated with rescuers finding pieces of the plane.
11:20 p.m.: This article was updated with the plane crashing into the Black Sea.
This article was originally posted at 9:45 p.m. Dec. 24.