By Denis Sinyakov in Sochi, AFP
Grieving relatives cast flowers into the Black Sea on Friday at the spot where an Armenian jet plunged into the waters, killing all 113 on board.
To the sound of mournful music and the boom of a fog horn, they scattered carnations and roses over the waters six kilometers (four miles) offshore from the Russian resort of Sochi, where the Armenian Airbus A320 crashed on Wednesday. A woman holding a photograph of two young newly-weds who died in the crash fainted on the deck of the boat that took them to the site. Several others also passed out.
Transport Minister Igor Levitin, who was in Sochi, said it was essential to find the corpses of the many victims still lost in the sea -- more than half of the people on the plane. Only 50 bodies have been recovered so far, according to the emergency situations ministry. "It's very important for us to raise the bodies. That's our priority now," Levitin said.
A first plane carrying 26 bodies arrived at the airport in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, on Friday after an initial delay, apparently due to a lack of coffins. "The victims' bodies are unrecognizable, horribly disfigured. A mother wouldn't know her own son," said one young man who had returned from Sochi after failing to find his brother-in-law, his eyes red from crying and fatigue.
Flags flew at half mast across Armenia, radio and television channels played sad music and memorial services were held at churches across the country. Russian officials and\ members of the public also laid flowers at the Armenian embassy in Moscow for the victims of the accident. The crash has shocked the two countries, which have long had close ties.
Meanwhile dozens of vessels as well as helicopters continued efforts to recover from the sea the victims' corpses and the black box flight recorders that might help establish why the plane crashed. Bad weather is thought to be the cause of the crash, according to investigators. The latter said they had picked up signals from what seemed to be the flight recorders at a location 680 meters (2,200 feet) below the surface, where a large section of the plane's wrecked fuselage lay.
Russia, whose investigators are being helped by experts from France, is seeking assistance from other foreign countries to raise the black boxes since its Black Sea fleet is not fully equipped for the task, Levitin said. A bathyscaphe submersible vehicle would be sent down to the site to ascertain whether the signals that have been picked up are really coming from a section of the plane, he added.
Relatives face the grim task of identifying their dead loved ones from photographs pinned on a hotel wall in Sochi, many of the bodies battered and bloated from submersion in the water.
On board the plane were 85 Armenian citizens, 26 Russians, one Georgian and one Ukrainian, according to a list published at Yerevan airport. Six children were thought to be among the dead. The plane disappeared from radar screens at 2:15 am on Wednesday (2215 GMT Tuesday) as it attempted a second landing at Adler airport near Sochi, Armenian and Russian officials said. The pilot had begun returning to Yerevan after aborting a first landing attempt, but wheeled round again after being informed that heavy rains had cleared.
The landing strip at Adler is awkwardly located between the sea and the Caucasus mountains and difficult to negotiate at the best of times, according to the authorities.
The Kommersant newspaper said on Friday that the plane's computer navigation systems would have been switched off for landing, due to the absence of supporting equipment on the ground for guiding in the plane. With the clouds no higher than 100 meters above the landing strip, the pilot would have had little time to manually adjust the plane's approach when it emerged from the cloud cover, the paper said.
(Photolur photo: Makeshift coffins of plane crush victims stacked outside a Yerevan morgue.)