Photo Agency KHL, Associated Press
TUNOSHNA, Russia — A private Russian jet carrying a top ice hockey team slammed into a riverbank moments after takeoff Wednesday, killing at least 43 people in one of the worst plane crashes ever involving a sports team. Two other people on board were critically injured.
Both Russia and the world of hockey were left stunned by the deaths of so many international stars in one catastrophic event. The International Ice Hockey Federation said 27 players of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team were killed, along with 2 coaches and 7 club officials.
Russian NHL star Alex Ovechkin tweeted: "I'm in shock!!!!!R.I.P ..."
The Russian Emergency Situations Ministry said the Yak-42 plane crashed into the shores of the Volga River immediately after leaving the airport near the western city of Yaroslavl, 150 miles (240 kilometers) northeast of Moscow. The weather was sunny and clear at the time. Russian media said the plane struggled to gain altitude and then crashed into a signal tower, shattering into pieces.
Russian television showed a flaming fragment of the plane in the river as divers worked feverishly to recover bodies.
The plane was carrying the team from Yaroslavl to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, where they were to play Thursday against Dinamo Minsk in the opening game of the Kontinental Hockey League season. It had 45 people on board, including 37 passengers and eight crew, the ministry said.
Officials said Russian player Alexander Galimov survived the crash along with a crewmember.
"Their state of health is very grave. But there is still some hope," said Alexander Degyatryov, chief doctor at Yaroslavl's Solovyov Hospital.
Among the dead were Lokomotiv coach and NHL veteran Brad McCrimmon, a Canadian, as well as Pavol Demitra, who played for the St. Louis Blues and the Vancouver Canucks and was the Slovakian national team captain. Also killed were Czech players Josef Vasicek, Karel Rachunek and Jan Marek, Swedish goalie Stefan Liv, Latvian defenseman Karlis Skrastins and defenseman Ruslan Salei of Belarus, the Emergency Ministry said.
"Though it occurred thousands of miles away from our home arenas, this tragedy represents a catastrophic loss to the hockey world — including the NHL family, which lost so many fathers, sons, teammates and friends," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement.
The crash comes on top of an already mournful year for the NHL in which three of the league's enforcers were found dead: Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and recently retired Wade Belak.
The cause of Wednesday's crash was not immediately apparent, but Russian news agencies cited unnamed local officials as saying it may have been due to technical problems. The plane was built in 1993 and belonged to a small Moscow-based Yak Service company.
In recent years, Russia and the other former Soviet republics have had some of the world's worst air traffic safety records. Experts blame the poor safety record on the age of the aircraft, weak government controls, poor pilot training and a cost-cutting mentality.
Swarms of police and rescue crews rushed to Tunoshna, a ramshackle village with a blue-domed church on the banks of the Volga River 10 miles (16 kilometers) east of Yaroslavl. One of the plane's engines could be seen poking out of the river and a flotilla of boats combed the water for bodies. Divers struggled to heft the bodies of large, strong athletes in stretchers up the muddy, steep riverbank.
Resident Irina Prakhova saw the plane going down then heard a loud bang.
"It was wobbling in flight, it was clear that something was wrong," said Prakhova. "I saw them pulling bodies to the shore, some still in their seats with seatbelts on."
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