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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Searchers Hunt for Clues to Air Crash

LONGYEARBYEN, Norway -- Experts investigating the crash of a Russian airliner braved rock slides and polar bears Friday in an arctic mountain search for 141 bodies and clues in Norway's worst air disaster.


Everyone aboard -- most of them Ukrainian and Russian coal miners and their families -- died when the aging Tupolev 154 slammed into a cloud-shrouded mountain on approach to the airport at Norway's Svalbard Islands.


A key clue was discovered late Friday. Tor Oydvin, of the Svalbard governor's office, announced that the plane's so-called "black box'' -- which records details of flights -- was found at the crash site, 900 meters high on Opera Mountain. The site is 10 kilometers from the airport.


Despite the lack of hard evidence about the latest black mark on Russian air safety, there was plenty of speculation about the cause of the crash.


Itar-Tass, quoting unidentified experts, said a sudden arctic squall could have caught the plane. However, Russian meteorologists told the Norwegian news agency NTB that weather was probably not a factor in the crash.


In Norway, debate raged over whether the lack of radar at the airport on Spitsbergen island was a factor. Some experts said such a system might have revealed that the plane was too low, while others said it probably made no difference.


Ingmar Pilskog, of the regional director of the Civilian Aviation Administration, said Conditions improved Friday, allowing a team to reach the area by helicopter.


"We have flown in a crew to work at site, consisting of identification experts, and identification experts. About 10 people, including medical personnel and dentists have been flown in,'' said Norwegian police spokesman Olav Sande at a news conference in Longyearbyen.


Part of wreckage was near the mountain top, but the jet's engines and tail section as well as the bodies of many victims slid down a steep slope.


`We have qualified mountain climbing and rescue personnel here in the Svalbard Red Cross, so we don't think it will be a problem to reach the wreckage,'' said Sande.


Policeman Arne Bjoerkaas said it could take a week or more to recover the bodies, because of the difficult terrain.


During the night, both guards who protected the site and searchers were on the lookout for polar bears, which have killed two people near Longyearbyen in the past year.


"No bears have been reported in the area, but there is always a risk,'' said Rune Hansen, deputy governor of the island.


The catastrophe stunned the fewer than 3,200 residents -- about half of them in Russian villages -- on the islands, 640 kilometers north of Norway. Although Svalbard is Norwegian, a 1920 treaty allowed other countries to use the islands for nonmilitary purposes. The miners were employed by the Russian company ArktikUgol.


"There is an unreal and numbing feeling in town. The flags are all at half mast,'' said Svalbard's Norwegian Governor Ann-Kristin Olsen in Longyearbyen, a rough, frontier-like town of about 1,000 people.


In Pyramiden, a Russian mining town of about 500 people, the Russian flag was draped with a black sash. Villagers posted the names of 42 dead friends and colleagues, and surrounded the list candles and paper flowers.


"My best friend lost his wife on that plane,'' miner Viktor Dubina told the Norwegian news agency NTB. "Now he is on his way home to Ukraine, and their 8-month-old daughter.''


It's a rough town. A hard place to live.


"We come for economic reasons,'' Dubina said. "But such an accident makes us wonder whether this is any place to stay.''


In Longyearbyen, Norwegian Baard Olsen spent the night with about 30 Russian miners who had been waiting for the plane at the airport. They had expected to go home.


"Some slept. Some whispered together, while others just sat and stared into the darkness,'' he said. "People are in shock.''


The crash was the latest -- and worst -- in a series of deadly accidents that have plagued Russian airliners since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and the breakup of the former state airline Aeroflot into some 400 companies.


Experts have blamed poor maintenance, safety violations and cost-cutting for the Russian airlines' persistent problems, which included a succession of major air crashes in Russia in 1994.