. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Vnukovo Fields Calls With Few Answers

Vnukovo Airlines, the company whose chartered Tupolev 154 passenger jet crashed in the arctic killing all on board was operating an information center manned by 25 receptionists and several doctors Friday.


There was some dispute over how many of the miners on board the doomed flight were from Ukraine -- with reports ranging from 69 to 74 -- and how many from Russia, but the support center in Moscow appeared to have had a wide response Friday.


"We have received calls from over 80 of the victim's relatives," said Igor Abramov, of Vnukovo Airlines. "We can tell them who was on board, but until the bodies are recovered we cannot yet be sure of who died and who didn't."


Abramov said his company would be offering "maximum support" to the relatives of the victims, and would assist them in traveling to Moscow as soon as the bodies return from their resting place on the Opera mountain.


The aircraft was chartered by the Russian mining company Trust Arktik Ugol, and was carrying the miners to work in Spitsbergen Island's remote coal pits, shared between Russia and Norway under a treaty dating back to the 1920s.


But with the black box still to be analyzed and officials hazarding numerous guesses at the cause of the crash, industry analysts were cautious in commenting.


"The cloud base [at the crash site] was 600 meters, and the aircraft crashed at 920 meters," said Paul Duffy, a consultant to several Russian aviation companies. "The navigation equipment at Spitsbergen is quite good ... so it seems a question of the crew being slightly off course. A similar type of crash killed the U.S. commerce secretary [Ron Brown] in Yugoslavia, and the 747 crash in Colombia earlier this year."


A.V. Morozov, head of the Murmansk pilots' union, was quoted on Russian Television's "Vesti" news program as saying that the navigation equipment at Spitsbergen was substandard, and that the runway was "very short."


Thursday's crash is the first in Vnukovo Airlines' 61-year history, said Duffy, and the airline was known as one of the "most professional and competent" of all the post-Soviet air companies.


The reasons for the crash will remain unclear until the "black box" flight recorder is analyzed, but the Norwegian Embassy's spokesperson said no warning or SOS signal was sent before the crash.


"The cloud was very low, that's what was fatal," she said. "The plane was flying too low."


"Vadim Nikolayev is a very competent pilot," said Duffy, a friend of the doomed Tupolev 154's captain. "I was very shocked when I heard the news of the crash ... The [crash] does not appear to be related to the aircraft ... At the end of the day, it will be blamed on the pilot, but I'd have to see more evidence before deciding [the exact cause]."


Norway declared Friday a national day of mourning in honor of the biggest air crash in Norway's history.