Relatives Lay Flowers at Sibir Crash Site

APTatyana Gorman waiting with her family Sunday at the Tel Aviv airport to fly to Sochi. Her husband, Boris, was on the Sibir flight.
SOCHI, Southern Russia -- They were rushed through a small gate straight to the closed-off docks of the Sochi port -- silent, black-clad people carrying wreaths and bouquets of flowers to be laid 200 kilometers out to sea at the place where their loved ones perished.

Several dozen relatives of the crew that manned Sibir Flight 1812 set sail Monday morning. Relatives of the 66 passengers were to sail Tuesday.

The Tu-154 exploded and crashed into the Black Sea on Thursday while on its way from Tel Aviv to Novosibirsk. U.S. intelligence officials believe the plane was hit by a Ukrainian surface-to-air missile fired during military exercises on the Crimean Peninsula.

Ukraine has denied it, and the air defense chief on Monday released what he called proof that a Ukrainian missile was not to blame.

General Volodymyr Tkachov said an S-200 that was fired just minutes before the plane exploded missed its target and fell 75 to 80 kilometers from its launch site and was already in the water when the plane crashed, The Associated Press reported.

An S-300 hit its target, and the launch time of 21 other missiles did not coincide with the time of the crash, he said.

Tkachov released video recordings of two missiles' trajectories and traced their flight paths on a map. He called it "evidence that Ukraine's Defense Ministry was not involved in the tragedy."

It was not clear if the information would satisfy Russia.

In Sochi, members of a Russian military delegation looking into the crash met for the first time Monday with their Ukrainian counterparts. The head of the joint group, Russian General Yevgeny Shaposhnikov, expressed confidence that the officers from the two countries would work well together, since they had once served in the same Soviet military and knew one another. "We are positive about the outcome of the investigation," Shaposhnikov said.

But another high-ranking member of the Russian side said it will "trust only hard proven facts."

As the investigation continues, the popular Black Sea resort is trying to cope with the human disaster.

"I've dealt with people who have lost their loved ones many times," said Natalya Shorokhova, a psychiatrist employed at a Sochi hot line who has been asked to help families of the victims. "But hardly ever on this scale."

Shorokhova, 62, is one of the few outside people the relatives communicate with. The 11th floor of the Moskva hotel, where all of them have been settled, has been virtually sealed off. An armed guard sits in the lobby, making sure nobody ventures into the quiet corridors. People stay in their rooms, Shorokhova says, going out only to finish up the official procedures, such as identification of the bodies.

Silent and somber, they are a stark contrast to the sights and sounds of the ongoing tourist season in Sochi -- outdoor cafes with the music blasting just meters from the hotel's main entrance and laughing visitors taking pictures in front of the hotel's garden.

Shorokhova said there is little she and her colleagues can do other than listen. "We are here to let them talk, to let them tell their stories, to show that we understand the scale of their loss and the depth of their grief," she said.

The plane crash tore through Russia's Jewish community. Many of the passengers were recently naturalized Israeli citizens who have family members still living in Russia.

The small Jewish community in Sochi opened its arms to the grieving relatives. In a small prayer house on the city's outskirts, a celebration of the harvest holiday Sukkot on Sunday turned into a mourning ceremony, attended by relatives of people who died in the crash and representatives of the Israeli government.

"This is just a gathering to let you know you are not alone, that your grief is our grief," said Rabbi Berl Lazar, one of Russia's chief rabbis.

But the meeting was also a touching and highly emotional cultural clash, as the relatives, most of whom were brought up in the Soviet Union, struggled to keep up with at least some of the rituals. When an Israeli military rabbi read in Hebrew parts of a prayer for the dead, or kaddish, the relatives failed to join in -- either because they were too stricken or simply did not know how to do it.

Yet after the ceremony was over, one of them stood up and, choking with tears, thanked the Israeli delegation for addressing them.

"Thank you for accepting our loved ones in Israel; they had beautiful lives there," she said before bursting into tears again.

Many of the Russian relatives broke down Sunday night when the first group of their family members arrived from Israel. The televised reports showed the square in front of the hotel filled with wailing people trying to find at least some comfort in each other's arms.

Only 14 bodies were recovered from the sea, and most were badly disfigured, which has complicated the identification process. "I really don't know which of them were 'luckier' -- those who saw the bodies of their dear ones or those who will never have this opportunity," Shorokhova sighed.

Even the identified bodies will not be released for burial soon, because they can offer the investigators precious clues as to what brought the plane down.

The Israeli relatives were disappointed to learn Monday that when they return home Wednesday, they will not have been given death certificates but only told when they will be completed and sent.

"The death certificate issue will be the only one left unresolved when they leave," said Leonid Baklitsky, the regional deputy governor who is handling the relatives' administrative issues.