ROSTOV-ON-DON – A flydubai passenger jet crashed in southern Russia early Saturday, killing all 62 people on board as it tried to land in bad weather in the city of Rostov-on-Don, officials said.
The Boeing 737, heading from Dubai to the southern Russian city, was reportedly making its second attempt to land at 0050 GMT when it missed the runway, erupting in a huge fireball as it crashed, leaving debris scattered across a wide area.
“My whole house shook. I looked out into the yard and the sky was all red – it was a shade of red that I have never seen,” eyewitness Yana, who lives near the airport, told AFP.
Russia’s Investigative Committee confirmed that all 55 passengers and seven crew members on board were killed and launched a probe into whether technical problems, pilot error or poor weather were behind the crash.
“On behalf of everyone at flydubai, I would like to express the devastation we all feel in relation to this morning’s tragic event in Rostov-on-Don,” flydubai chairman Ghaith Al Ghaith said in a statement.
A no-frills budget carrier which is a sister firm to Emirates Airlines, flydubai is government-owned and was set up in March 2008.
“We do not yet know all the details of the incident but we are working closely with the authorities to establish precisely what happened,” the company said.
The passengers on board flight FZ981, which took off from Dubai at 1820 GMT and was due to land at 2240 GMT, included 44 Russian nationals, eight Ukrainians, two Indians and one Uzbek, the airline said. They comprised 33 women, 18 men and four children.
Various sources said the pilot was from Cyprus, while crew members came from Spain and the remaining four were from Russia, Colombia, the Seychelles and Kyrgyzstan.
Inside the international terminal at Rostov-on-Don airport, local residents laid flowers in front of a list of the victims, as shocked relatives tried to digest the news.
“I turned on the news and for some reason thought it was a terrorist attack but it turned out to have been here right at the airport,” said relative Alexander Chistyakov.
“My brother was fifteen years older than me. He was a succesful surgeon in the local hospital. It is such a loss.”
Footage aired on local media showed a huge fireball engulfing a wide area after the plane went down. The authorities took more than an hour to get the blaze under control, the emergencies ministry said.
State media later showed pictures of rescue workers combing through scattered debris in the driving snow, with the emergencies ministry saying over 700 rescuers and 100 vehicles had been deployed.
Investigators confirmed that the plane’s two black boxes had been recovered.
They said the plane had “skimmed the ground and broke into several pieces”, with fragments of the Boeing 737 reportedly scattered up to 1.5 kilometres (one mile) from the crash site.
A strong wind warning was in place and it was raining hard at the time of the crash.
Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed his condolences to the families of the victims after being briefed on the crash by his transport and emergency situations ministers, the Kremlin said.
Other flights were diverted to Krasnodar airport, 300 kilometres (180 miles) south of Rostov-on-Don.
Following the crash, a criminal investigation was opened to determine whether any safety regulations were violated and if negligence played any part in the disaster.
“Different versions for what happened are being worked through, among them a mistake made by the crew of the plane, a technical problem onboard, difficult weather conditions and other factors,” Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin said in a statement.
Aircraft manufacturer Boeing said in a statement that it “stands ready to provide technical assistance upon the request of government agencies conducting the investigation.”
Based at Dubai airport, the airline has a strong safety record, although one of its planes was hit by a bullet as it landed in Baghdad airport in January 2015, prompting multiple companies to suspend flights to the Iraqi capital. No one was hurt.
Russian airports have a patchy safety history with the fatal private jet crash in 2014 that killed Total oil giant’s boss Christophe de Margerie on take-off in Moscow one of a string of incidents.
The last major aviation tragedy involving Russia was in October last year, when a passenger jet on its way from Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh resort to Saint Petersburg was brought down by a bomb in the Sinai Peninsula.
All 224 people on board, the vast majority of them Russian, were killed, with the Egyptian branch of the Islamic State group claiming responsibility for the attack.
That incident saw Moscow stop flights to Egypt, cutting off one of the most popular holiday destinations for Russians.
Moscow has also banned the sale of package tours to Turkey after Ankara shot down one of its jets in Syria in November.