Heartbreak in Russia as thousands mourn victims

By Misha Japaridze

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Sept. 10 2011 5:35 a.m. MDT

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin lays flowers during a funeral service for the victims of Wednesday's plane crash, in the Arena Yaroslavl, 150 miles (240 kilometers) northeast of Moscow in Russia, Saturday, Sept. 10, 2011. The chartered Yak-42 jet crashed Wednesday into the banks of the Volga River moments after takeoff from an airport near Yaroslavl. The crash killed 43 people, including 36 players, coaches and staff of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl ice hockey team, many of whom were European national team and former NHL players.

Misha Japaridze, Associated Press

YAROSLAVL, Russia — With mounds of flowers and rivers of tears, tens of thousands of people flocked to a memorial ceremony Saturday for the victims of the Russian plane crash that devastated a top ice hockey team.

Mourners including Prime Minister Vladimir Putin poured into the team's arena in the western city of Yaroslavl to lay flowers near coffins containing remains of players and staff of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team. Many were draped in the team's red, white and blue colors.

Wednesday's crash of a chartered Yak-42 jet killed 43 people and was one of the sports world's worst aviation disasters. Of the 45 people on board, 36 were Lokomotiv players, coaches and team officials, including many European and former NHL players.

The crash shocked Russia and the entire hockey community but emotions were especially raw in Yaroslavl, where the team's consistently strong performance in the Kontinental Hockey League was a source of great pride. The team had been heading to Minsk, Belarus, to play its opening game of the KLH season.

"It's hard for me to talk because I loved the team so much," said Slovakian national hockey team coach Vladimir Vujtek, who had previously coached Lokomotiv.

"For the first time in my life, I had trouble entering an ice arena," KHL chairman and former NHL star Vyacheslav Fetisov said at the ceremony. "It's an inexplicable tragedy."

The somber-faced Putin walked slowly across the arena, laying flowers at each of the coffins, and several KHL ice hockey squads traveled en masse to Yaroslavl to attend the ceremony.

Local police estimated the crowd at 100,000 people.

President Dmitry Medvedev visited the crash site a day after the disaster, but didn't attend Saturday's ceremony. Many fans had criticized Medvedev for using the arena for an international conference this week, a move that forced the team to fly out of town in the first place.

Fetisov on Saturday renewed a KHL pledge to help rebuild the Lokomotiv team. KHL chief Alexander Medvedev said earlier this week that each team in the league should volunteer up to three players to build a new Lokomotiv squad. He said some 35 players had already volunteered to join the new team.

The KHL is an international club league that pits together 24 teams from Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Latvia and Slovakia.

Russian crash investigators deciphering the plane's flight data recorders say all the plane's three engines were operating up until the moment it crashed into the Volga River bank shortly after takeoff. The experts have come to no conclusions yet about the cause of the crash.

Authorities checked fuel supplies at the Tunoshna airport amid suspicions that low quality fuel could be to blame, but Russia's top aviation authority said Saturday the data recorders gave no indication that bad fuel was the cause.

Two men who survived the crash — player Alexander Galimov and crew member Alexander Sizov — remained in critical condition Saturday, both in medicated comas after being transferred to Moscow for treatment. Hospital officials said Galimov had burns over 90 percent of his body.

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