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Vain attempt to avert deadly crash

A police officer takes photos of the wreckage from the crash
A police officer takes photos of the wreckage from the crash  

UEBERLINGEN, Germany (CNN) -- Both pilots in a midair collision that killed 71 people -- most of them children and teenagers -- were believed to be diving to try to avoid a crash.

But instead the Tupolev-154, flown by Russia's Bashkirian Airlines, and a DHL Boeing 757 cargo jet careened into each other at 35,000 feet (12,000 metres) late Monday night, killing everyone on both aircraft and scattering "burning pieces like fire" over a 20-mile radius.

Swiss air traffic controllers say they told the Russian pilot three times to descend, but when he eventually did it was too late. Meanwhile, a Russian airport spokesman suggested it could have been the other pilot's fault.

Both planes were carrying crash avoidance transponders, CNN's Alessio Vinci reported, and it is possible the planes headed for each other in a "double error" that caused a million-to-one collision. (Midair crashes: Rare nightmare)

By Tuesday afternoon, 26 bodies had been recovered, German officials told a news conference, adding that it was "a miracle" no one on the ground was injured.

CNN's Diane Muriel reports on the midair tragedy that claimed 71 lives (July 2)

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CNN's Jill Dougherty reports from Moscow
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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, the news conference was told. The DHL jet was carrying a crew of two, a pilot and co-pilot.

Investigators hope to get more information about the cause of the crash from the Tupelov's flight recorder, which was recovered on Tuesday.

The aircraft collided about 11:43 p.m. (2243 GMT) on Monday over the town of Owingen, near the German-Swiss border about 190 kilometres (120 miles) southwest of Munich.

Most of the victims were children of high-ranking Bashkortostan officials travelling to the Costa Dorada area outside Barcelona for a summer holiday. (Full story)

Din Uzhin, a group leader for the students, told the AP he was supposed to have flown along but did not get a Spanish visa so was left behind in Moscow.

"The parents of the children are calling nonstop asking whether I know anything about the fate of their children," he said on Tuesday. "And I have to say time and again: Your children were on that plane."

A Bashkirian spokesman told the AP that the group of children and adults had arrived in Moscow on Saturday but missed their connection to Spain, and the airline arranged a special flight to Barcelona.

"If only they had flown on time, nothing would have happened," said the mother of 11-year-old victim Bulat Biglov on Russia's NTV television. She was one of many tearful parents gathering at the airport in Ufa, getting passports and travel documents in order to leave for Germany.

The cargo plane was en route to Brussels, Belgium, from the Persian Gulf state of Bahrain with a stop in Italy. The pilot was named as Paul Phillips, 47, of Britain. The co-pilot was a 34-year-old Canadian, Brant Campioni. They were based in Bahrain and had 15,000 hours of flight time between them.

Both Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder sent their condolences to the families of the victims. Putin said there would be a full inquiry.

Russia's civil aviation chief Alexander Neradko said all factors into the cause of the crash would be explored. "Obviously, we have the human factor here," he told the Interfax news agency.

'Double descent'

CNN's Diana Muriel said the role of air traffic controllers in the crash was being examined.

The collision came less than six months after European air traffic controllers halved the minimum height between aircraft as part of the Reduced Vertical Separation Minimum (RVSM) programme. (Crash comes after air traffic change)

Swiss air controllers had taken over both planes from their German counterparts only a few minutes before the crash happened, the AP reported.

Anton Maag, chief of the air traffic control tower in Zurich, said the Russian plane only began to decrease altitude after a third request by a "very experienced" controller. At the same time, the DHL plane's automatic collision warning system inexplicably issued an order to descend.

"The double descent led to both planes flying at the same altitude and hitting each other," Maag said.

But Sergei Rudakov, the head of Domodedovo airport, denied that the Russian pilot -- who he described as very experienced -- caused the collision, and he suggested to RTR television that perhaps the other plane's pilot was at fault.

Rescue crews in helicopters using infrared cameras worked through the night in search of bodies or survivors in the low rolling hills around Lake Constance. The lake, shared by Austria, Germany and Switzerland, is one of Europe's biggest and is a popular vacation spot is dotted with sailboats in the summer.

Witnesses reported seeing pieces of the planes falling from the sky 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)

U.S. officials said a representative of the National Transportation Safety Board would participate in an investigation of the crash involving the U.S.-built 757, which was built in 1990 and purchased from British Airways in 1999.

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 on jets)




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