August 24, 2006

Relatives mourn at Ukraine crash site

By Gleb Garanich

SUKHA BALKA, Ukraine (Reuters) - Grieving relatives, their
heads bowed, gathered on Thursday by a meadow where a Russian
airliner bringing holidaymakers back from the seaside crashed
in eastern Ukraine, killing all 170 on board.

As flags flew at half staff to mark a day of mourning
throughout Russia, a wooden cross with black ribbons stood by
the gully where the Soviet-designed Tu-154 slammed into the
ground on Tuesday after flying into a violent storm.

Mourners were confined to an adjacent hill as search teams
from Ukraine and Russia completed clean-up work, gathering
debris as well as the remains of those who had been on board.

Teams of medics stood at the ready by a large tent to treat
distraught relatives.

The process of identifying the dead was also under way.
Officials said blood tests were required in some cases as the
plane was engulfed by a fire once it hit the ground,
disfiguring passengers' bodies.

Teams patrolled the site with sniffer dogs to ensure all
human remains had been removed.

"We are conducting checks," said Vadim Seryogin, head of a
team of Russian investigators at the site. "But we believe
that, along with our Ukrainian colleagues, we have got them all

Clergymen were allowed to place flowers and soft toys at
the heart of the site, next to a burned out engine. Forty-five
of the dead were children, six of them under two years old.

The clergy then scooped up a large sack of earth as a
keepsake for mourners, flown in from Russia's second city of St
Petersburg, where the aircraft had been headed from Anapa on
the Black Sea.


"The most dreadful thing when you have loss of life is the
feeling of helplessness," President Vladimir Putin told Spanish
King Juan Carlos at his Black Sea holiday residence.

"There is nothing you can do. In a case like this, we
remember those who died and try to help those close to them."

In St Petersburg, where many of the victims lived, mourners
led by the regional governor lit candles at a memorial service
in the colonnaded Kazan Cathedral.

The Tu-154's "black box" data and voice recorders were in
Moscow undergoing examination to determine what caused the
plane to plunge more than 11,000 meters (35,000 feet).
Officials said it could take more than a month to decipher the

Officials initially said the plane, operated by Pulkovo
Airlines, one of Russia's largest, had been hit by lightning.
But they have since refused to offer any explanation pending a
full investigation.

Russian media, quoting experts, said the plane may have
encountered difficulty by exceeding its maximum allowed
altitude to avoid the storm on its route across Ukraine's
eastern tip.

Passenger lists showed two Germans, a Dutch national, a
French citizen and one Finn among the dead.

(Additional reporting by Dmitry Solovyov in St Petersburg)