By Olga Nedbayeva, AFP
Anguished relatives faced the grim ordeal Thursday of identifying their loved ones as rescue workers stepped up the search for bodies, debris and the data recorders of an Armenian plane that plunged into the Black Sea, killing all 113 on board.
Russian rescue teams continued searching the area where the Airbus A320 plunged into the sea near the Russian resort of Sochi on Wednesday, plumbing the depths with specialist equipment, including sonars.
An official with Russia's emergency situations ministry, Andrei Pakulov, told AFP a signal had been picked up from what might be one of the Airbus A320's black box flight recorders.
Investigators have said bad weather was the most likely cause of the crash which occurred as the aircraft was approaching the landing strip, awkwardly located between the sea and the Caucasus mountains.
The RIA news agency, quoting an official in the search operation, said a major section of the plane had been located with the help of a submersible search vessel. "All our deep water special equipment will be assembled at that point in the coming hours," RIA quoted the official as saying.
At a nearby Armenian school a memorial ceremony took place for two former students of the school. Afterwards, students and teachers went to the seashore and cast 113 carnations and roses into the water.
Russian Transport Minister Igor Levitin addressed over 200 relatives of the victims desperate to find the bodies of their loved ones. Investigators will work "for as long as it takes to recover all the bodies and body parts," Levitin said, adding that it was too early to say for sure what had caused the crash.
"Do everything you can to recover the bodies -- I implore you," urged one young man, in tears. "How will the bodies be identified? Let us enter the morgue and see the personal belongings," urged another relative.
By Thursday morning 53 bodies had been fished out of the water and 22 had been identified, news agencies said. The remains of the aircraft were submerged in more than 400 meters (1,300 feet) of water but Levitin said a team of French specialists brought in to search for the jet's black boxes had "all the technical means needed" to locate them.
Relatives of the victims were to visit the crash site by boat on Friday to drop commemorative wreaths into the water. Both Armenia and Russia have declared Friday an official day of mourning.
Relatives on Wednesday began the task of identifying their loved ones from photographs taken of the bodies recovered so far, including that of a child. On Thursday, Tamara Mkrtchian, 36, said she had lost her husband Markar, their 17-year-old daughter Flora and two other relatives -- all of whom were returning from a wedding in Yerevan -- but had yet to recognize any of their bodies.
"The photos are horrible. Imagine what they suffered. My daughter had forebodings. She had been afraid to take the plane, afraid it would fall into the sea. I suggested she change the ticket but she didn't want to," said Mkrtchian.
(Photolur photo: Relatives of crash victims grieving at Yerevan airport on Wednesday.)