Mid-air collision inquiry begins
UEBERLINGEN, Germany (CNN) -- German, Russian and U.S. investigators were en route on Tuesday to the scene of Monday night's mid-air plane collision that killed 71 people, many of them of Russian teenagers.
The Russian Tupolev 154 and Boeing 757 cargo plane slammed into each other possibly as they both dived in a desperate attempt to get out of the other's flight path. There were no survivors.
The children on board the Russian plane were in a party heading for a holiday in Barcelona, Spain.
"These children were full of hope and full of joy on their way to a holiday," German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said Tuesday.
Schroeder said he would express his "deepest regrets and sympathy" to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who also sent his condolences.
The collision of the Bashkirian Airlines Tu-154 and a DHL Boeing 757 scattered "burning pieces like fire" over a 20-mile area around Lake Constance on the German-Swiss border.
German officials said it was a miracle that no-one on the ground was killed by the flaming debris.
The Russian plane was carrying 12 crew and 57 passengers, including five adults, nine young children and 43 youngsters between the ages of 12 and 18, German officials told a news conference. The DHL jet was carrying a crew of two.
Bashkirian Airlines spokesman Vener Shakirov said the children were part of a tour group from Ufa, Russia, traveling on holiday to Costa Brava, Spain, north of Barcelona. (Full story)
Some of the teenagers had missed an earlier flight after going to the wrong airport in Moscow and they chartered the doomed flight through Bashkirian Airlines at the last minute, Shakirov said.
The cargo plane was en route to Brussels, Belgium, from the Persian Gulf state of Bahrain with a stop in Bergamo, Italy, according to DHL's Web site. The captain of the cargo plane was British and the co-pilot was Canadian.
Search teams have recovered 26 bodies and body parts scattered across at least 47 different sites, German officials said.
Investigators hope to get more information about the cause of the crash from the cockpit voice recorders from both the aircraft and the flight data recorders from the Tu-154 uncovered on Tuesday. Investigators were still searching for the flight data recorder from the Boeing 757.
The aircraft collided about 11:43 p.m. (5:43 p.m. ET) Monday over the town of Owingen near the German-Swiss border about 190 kilometers (118 miles) southwest of Munich.
Witnesses reported seeing pieces of the planes falling from the sky after the thunderous crash and that areas on the ground caught fire. Heike Stark said she was reading a book when "all of a sudden there was a noise like thunder." (Eyewitness accounts)
There were differing accounts on how the "one-in-a-million" crash occurred. (Midair crashes are rare)
Swiss air traffic controllers said they tried at least three times to contact the Russian pilot to get him to descend and change course.
The pilot and co-pilot of the Tu-154 both spoke English, so there was no language barrier between them and the air traffic controllers, police and Russian officials said.
"The problem was that the Russian aircraft did not immediately respond," said Anton Maag, the chief of Zurich's air traffic control tower.
"For reasons that aren't entirely clear, this decrease in altitude only occurred very late. As a result, the internal warnings system in the second aircraft, which was moving north to south, instructed the pilots to descend."
Contradicting the initial Swiss account, the German government agency for air accident investigations told The Associated Press the Russian pilot received a first warning to correct altitude only about 50 seconds before the crash.
The head of Bashkirian Airlines blamed the air traffic controllers for the collision, Russia's Interfax news agency reported.
"My theory is that this is the fault of the air traffic controllers who brought two airplanes together in midair," Nikolai Odegov was quoted as saying.
He stressed the Russian plane met all requirements set by the International Civil Aviation Organization, Interfax reported. Odegov was due in Germany as part of the Russian investigative team.
Both planes were equipped with anti-collision transponders.
The collision came less than six months after European air traffic controllers reduced the minimum height between aircraft by half as part of the Reduced Vertical Separation Minimum, or RVSM, program. (Full story)
U.S. officials said a representative of the National Transportation Safety Board would participate in an investigation of the crash involving the American-built cargo plane.
The Tu-154 is Russia's domestic workhorse, but some aviation officials contend the plane is unsafe because numerous accidents over the last decade have killed more than 600 people. (Details)
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