By LYNN BERRY - Associated Press
TUNOSHNA, Russia (AP) — A Russian jet carrying a top ice hockey team crashed into a river bank Wednesday while taking off in western Russia, killing at least 43 people and leaving two others critically injured, officials said.
The Russian Emergency Situations Ministry said the Yak-42 plane crashed in sunny weather immediately after leaving an airport near the city of Yaroslavl, on the Volga River about 150 miles (240 kilometers) northeast of Moscow.
It said the plane was carrying the Lokomotiv ice hockey team from Yaroslavl to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, where it was to play Thursday against Dinamo Minsk in the opening game of the season of the Kontinental Hockey League. The ministry was carrying 45 people, including 37 passengers and eight crew, and two people survived the crash.
It wasn’t immediately clear which players were on board the Yak-42. Officials said player Alexander Galimov survived the crash along with a crewmember.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin immediately sent the nation’s transport minister to the site, 10 miles (15 kilometers) east of Yaroslavl.
The plane that crashed was relatively new, built in 1993, and belonged to a small Yak Service company.
Lokomotiv 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. He was mosly recently an assistant coach with the Detroit Red Wings, and played 18 years in the NHL for Boston, Philadelphia, Detroit, Hartford and Phoenix.
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.
Other top names include forward Josef Vasicek of the Czech Republic, Czech defenseman Karel Rachunek, Russian defensemen Ruslan Salei and Karlis Skrastins, and Swedish goalie Stefan Liv.
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.
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 resident, Irina Pryakhova, saw the plane going down.
“It was wobbling in flight, it was clear that something was wrong,” she said. “It went down behind the trees and there was a bang and a plume of smoke.”
She said rescuers pulled victims’ bodies out of the Volga River. “I saw them pulling bodies to the shore, some still in their seats with seatbelts on,” Pryakhova said.
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 Konintental 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.
President Dmitry 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 in service with Russian carriers.
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.