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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cargo Jet Smashes Into Siberian Town

IRKUTSK, Eastern Siberia -- Workers hacked away at the charred hulk of an apartment building with pickaxes and hammers Monday, looking for signs of the missing after a cargo jet slammed into a residential neighborhood and burst into flames after takeoff Saturday, killing as many as 65.

Rescue squads clad in orange jumpsuits against the Siberian cold cleared away the last pieces of the military cargo jet that demolished the building, and went through the ruins brick by brick in the hunt for remains.

The Ruslan Antonov An-124 cargo jet was carrying two Sukhoi fighter jets for export to Vietnam and had 100 metric tons of fuel in its tanks, generating an explosion and intense fire when it crashed 21 seconds after taking off from a nearby military airfield.

It reached a maximum altitude of 100 meters, said Sergei Ostroumov, an adviser to the regional governor.

"It fell practically without any noise, which means that, apparently, the engines did not work," Ostroumov said. "It seems like [the crew] purposely pointed the plane between the houses toward an empty plot."

The 340-ton, 11-year-old plane missed an orphanage but hit an apartment block housing 106 people.

The plane's 110 tons of aviation fuel triggered an intense fire, burning several buildings and most of the Antonov and the two Sukhois in its hold.

Terrified residents of Irkutsk, 4,200 kilometers and five time zones east of Moscow, came pouring out of their homes as the flames spread rapidly. "I thought it was an earthquake," said Andrei Derevyanchuk, 53, a pensioner who lived in the worst-hit building. "I grabbed my daughter, barely dressed, her kid, and went to the window. There was fire all over the place."

"We managed to get out through the stairway, but my wife, she was left behind. She stood by the window suffocating in smoke and we could not do anything. Thank God fire fighters managed to save her," Derevyanchuk said.

Fifty-seven bodies had been recovered, with eight others unaccounted for and presumed dead. But officials said the exact death toll and many other circumstances surrounding Saturday's crash remained unclear.

Pressed by residents and reporters for the cause, Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu said, "I'm waiting for answers, too.''

Analysis of the airplane's flight recorders released Monday night suggested that engine failure led to the crash, Interfax reported.

Two of the craft's three black boxes confirmed not only that the plane's two port engines had been shut down, but also that the starboard engines had been hit by malfunctions, Interfax said.

The third black box, which recorded conversation in the cockpit, was too badly damaged to be salvaged, said Marshal Yevgeny Shaposhnikov, President Boris Yeltsin's adviser for aeronautic and space affairs.

Despite temperatures around minus 20 degrees Celsius, somber residents stood at the devastated scene, some crying. Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin paid a visit to the site and tried to console a woman whose two teenaged children were killed in her apartment.

"I lost two sons, ages 16 and 13," said Natalya Davidova, 53, afterward, before breaking down in sobs.

Only 11 of the bodies, extremely badly burned, had been identified by late Monday.

The aircraft of the Russian air force's transport command was carrying 23 people. Most of the other dead were believed to be residents of the apartment block, along with two children who died in the orphanage fire.

Twelve other people remained hospitalized, including five children.

Chernomyrdin, appointed by Yeltsin to head the investigation, said the crew was not to blame, blaming "technical reasons'' which he did not enumerate. He ordered a day of mourning Monday for the Irkutsk region.

The chief pilot had 20 years' experience, according to Russian television reports.

Rescuers meanwhile continued to use sniffer dogs to conduct the grisly search for those killed in the catastrophe, hampered by the bitter sub-zero temperatures which quickly froze water used to douse the smoldering wreckage and covered much of the crash site with sheet ice.

White smoke was still billowing from the ruins in the eerie glow of the arc lights as night fell. The fire fuelled by the 110 metric tons of kerosene from the aircraft's tanks was finally extinguished Saturday night, but the fuel-soaked ground and the charred debris are still smoking.

The violence of the impact, the fire and temperatures of minus 20 degrees Celsius mean there is virtually no chance of finding more survivors in the wreckage.

Nevertheless, some 140 professional rescue workers from the emergencies ministry in orange suits and helmets were to spend a third night combing through the rubble of the two buildings which took the brunt of the crash.

Residents looked at the ashes for signs of their belongings, among them one of the luckiest of the survivors.

Derevyanchuk, a retired airplane factory technician, remained focused on the horrendous loss of life, not the fact he had been spared. "It was Saturday, a day off -- everyone was here, everyone was at home," he said, gesturing to the ruined building. "I know them all, all the people who died.

"They're dead. They're dead," he repeated, as if he still could not quite believe it. "They all died."