Russian Jet Carrying Top Hockey Team Crashes, Kills at Least 43

A Russian jet carrying a top hockey team crashed just after takeoff Wednesday, killing at least 43 people and leaving two others critically injured, officials said. It was one of the worst plane crashes ever involving a sports team. The pilot may have overshot a runway takeoff abort line before he lifted his plane into the air and crashed it into a beacon tower.

The Russian Emergency Situations Ministry said the Yak-42 plane dropped into a riverbank on the Volga River immediately after leaving an airport near the western city of Yaroslavl, 150 miles (240 kilometers) northeast of Moscow. It was sunny at the time.

The plane was carrying the Lokomotiv ice hockey team from Yaroslavl to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, where the team was to play Thursday against Dinamo Minsk in the opening game of the season for the Kontinental Hockey League. The ministry said the plane had 45 people on board, including 37 passengers and eight crew.

Officials said Russian player Alexander Galimov survived the crash along with a crew member.

Eleven foreign players were reportedly onboard the jet. A Czech embassy official said Czech players Josef Vasicek, Karel Rachunek and Jan Marek were among those killed, and Latvian officials confirmed the death of Latvian defensemen Karlis Skrastins.

The plane that crashed was relatively new, built in 1993, and belonged to a small Moscow-based Yak Service company.

Swarms of police and rescue crews rushed to Tunoshna, a picturesque village with a blue-domed church on the banks of the Volga River. One of the plane’s engines could be seen poking out of the river and a flotilla of boats combed the water for bodies. Russian rescue workers struggled to heft the bodies of large, strong athletes in stretchers up the muddy, steep riverbank.

Witnesses described the fuselage engulfed in fire, and the blackened forms of bodies nearby on the ground.

One resident, Irina Pryakhova, saw the plane going down, then heard a loud bang and saw a plume of smoke. “It was wobbling in flight, it was clear that something was wrong,” she said. “I saw them pulling bodies to the shore, some still in their seats seat belts on.” (Washington Post)

Aleksandr Kanygin, a 65-year-old resident of the village the plane flew over, said he heard two explosions while it was airborne, and then a louder explosion when it struck the ground. “The air shook,” he said. (New York Times)

“I heard a big bang and then a louder one 10 seconds later,” said Andrei Gorshkov, a 16-year-old Tunoshna resident. “Flames shot high and a column of black smoke rose into the air.” He said he had seen the plane about 300 meters over the village, its nose pointing at a downward angle, then lost sight of it as it fell. When he ran to the site, he said, “The wheel assembly was burning, half the plane was in the water, seats were floating and two people lay dead.” (Reuters)

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin immediately sent the nation’s transport minister to the site, 10 miles (15 kilometers) east of Yaroslavl. President Dmitry Medvedev also planned to tour the crash site.

Lokomotive Yaroslavl is a leading force in Russian hockey and came third in the KHL last year. The team’s coach is Canadian Brad McCrimmon, who took over in May. McCrimmon was a native of Saskatchewan, and he was 52 years old. He was most recently an assistant coach with the Detroit Red Wings, and played for years in the NHL for Boston, Philadelphia, Detroit, Hartford and Phoenix.

A spokesman for Lokomotiv, Vladimir N. Maklov, said in a telephone interview, “We have no team anymore, they all burned in the crash.” (New York Times) “At first we didn’t believe it. But right now, there is no hope. The team is gone,” a Lokomotiv official said soon after the accident on a Twitter feed.

A Kontinental Hockey League statement said: “We are only beginning to understand the impact of this tragedy affecting the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl club on the friend’s we’ve lost and the international hockey community. First and foremost, our condolences go out to the families of the players, coaches and staff lost in today’s tragedy. We know that there are many in the KHL family who will be grieving with us.” (CNN)

The Russian team also featured several top European players and former NHL stars, including Slovakian forward and national team captain Pavol Demitra, who played in the NHL for the St. Louis Blues and Vancouver Canucks. Demitra’s agent Matt Keator said he found out about his death through the player’s Russian agency. “I’m just kind of stunned, the whole hockey world is stunned,” Keator told CBC News. “It’s senseless and awful. I’ve been trying to reach his family, but obviously it’s a tough time for them right now.” (CBC)

The Canucks released a statement on Wednesday afternoon confirming Demitra’s death, praising him for his passion for his young family and the game of hockey. “Pavol was a valued teammate and member of our organization and will sorely missed,” the team said. “We send our deepest condolences to the entire Demitra family and their friends so affected by this tragedy.” (CBC)

Other top names on the team include Russian defensemen Ruslan Salei and Swedish goalie Stefan Liv. Former Toronto Maple Leaf Igor Koralev and Alexander Karpotsev were listed as team members but there is no word yet if they were on the plane.

The KHL is an international club league that pits together teams from Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Latvia and Slovakia. Lokomotiv was a three-time Russian League champion in 1997, 2002-2003. It took bronze last season.

A cup match between hockey teams Salavat Yulaev and Atlant in the central Russian city of Ufa was called off midway after news of the crash was announced by Kontinental Hockey League head Alexander Medvedev. Russian television broadcast images of an empty arena in Ufa as grief-stricken fans abandoned the stadium. “We will do our best to ensure that hockey in Yaroslavl does not die, and that it continues to live for the people that were on that plane,” said Russian Ice Hockey Federation President Vladislav Tretyak. (Washington Post)

One Lokomotiv fan, Dmitri Shorikov, arrived in a sports jersey to stare glumly at the flashing lights and commotion. “I still haven’t taken it in,” he said. “I just cannot believe it.” (New York Times)

In recent years, Russia and the other former Soviet republics have had some of the world’s worst air traffic safety records. Experts blame the poor safety record on the age of the aircraft, weak government controls, poor pilot training and a cost-cutting mentality.

Medvedev has announced plans to take aging Soviet-built planes out of service starting next year. The short- and medium-range Yak-42 has been in service since 1980 and about 100 are still being used by Russian carriers.

“In such a situation, after their friends and colleagues died, the players of both teams considered playing to be absolutely impossible,” Medvedev told reporters. (BBC)

Interviewed by Ria-Novosti news agency, Vyacheslav Fetisov said there was an urgent need to support the team and its fans. “We now need to take a very calculated step towards creating a team in Yaroslavl – perhaps a new draft or a re-draft.” (BBC)

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said the crash “represents a catastrophic loss to the hockey world – including the NHL family, which lost so many fathers, sons, teammates and friends who at one time excelled in our league. Our deepest condolences go to the families and loved ones of all who perished.” (CNN)

Vladislav Tretiak, the great Soviet net minder now president of the Russianas well as for international [ice]hockey. Several internationally well-known players, a Canadian coach, all of them had a remarkable career in the big sport, have died in that crash,” Tretiak told The Star. “We are all deeply shocked with the loss of such a great team,” he said. (The Star)

In June, another Russian passenger jet crashed in the northwestern city of Petrozavodsk, killing 47 people. The crash of that Tu-134 plane has been blamed on pilot error.

In other plane crashes involving sports teams, 75 Marshall University football players, coaches, fans and airplane crew died in a plane crash in Kentucky on Nov. 17, 1970 on the way home from a game. Thirty members of the Uruguayan rugby club Old Christians were killed in a crash in the Andes in 1972. The entire 18-member U.S. figure skating team died in a crash on their way to the 1961 world championships in Brussels.

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