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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Nation Mourns Tu-154 Passengers

With flags lowered to half-staff, the nation mourned on Thursday the deaths of 145 people aboard a Tu-154 jet that crashed a day earlier near the eastern Siberian city of Irkutsk.

Federal authorities investigating the crash made a preliminary examination of the airplane's two flight data recorders over night and sent them to Moscow for full analysis.

First Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov, who is heading the crash investigation, said any clues gleaned from the black boxes should be available Monday. But Klebanov cautioned that some information on the recorders may be difficult to retrieve due to damage inflicted in the crash.

"There are still some questions. … The quality of the recorders in several places is not very satisfactory," he said.

The 15-year-old Tu-154, operated by the Vladivostokavia airline, was preparing to land at the Irkutsk airport early Wednesday morning when it inexplicably turned 180 degrees, flying tail first. The aircraft plummeted from 850 meters to belly-flop in a wooded meadow about 22 kilometers from the airport, breaking up into thousands of pieces.

All 136 passengers and nine crew members died. Twelve of the passengers were Chinese.

The tri-engine plane was to make a stop in Irkutsk en route from the Urals city of Yekaterinburg to Vladivostok in the Far East.

The crash is the worst air disaster in Russia in more than a decade.

Klebanov ruled out an explosion or any other "emergency situation on board" including engine failure as having led to the crash.

"I can say now officially that all three engines were in normal working order — the flight recorders reflect that," Klebanov said in televised remarks.

"Everything was working — engines, wheels — everything was working."

Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu suggested Wednesday that the three turbofans mounted at the rear of the aircraft had suddenly quit. Other reports said that the crash was likely caused by some other technical malfunction or pilot error.

Planes from Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok flew to Irkutsk throughout the day Thursday, bringing hundreds of relatives of the deceased passengers and crew members to identify the bodies.

"We expect 90 more relatives to come from Vladivostok tonight," acting Deputy Irkutsk Mayor Mikhail Kashcheyev said by telephone.

More than 20 relatives of the Chinese nationals who died in the crash arrived in Irkutsk Thursday, Interfax reported.

"We are providing accommodation and three meals a day for everyone, as well as full medical and psychological counseling," Kashcheyev said. "Irkutsk residents whose relatives were on the plane also received aid in their homes."

Forty-seven passengers were bound for Irkutsk.

"We have facilities ready to hospitalize people if needed, but so far there have been no requests to do so," Kashcheyev said. "People are coping, even though it's so difficult."

He said caskets for the remains would be ready by Friday morning and that identification of the bodies should be completed by Saturday or Sunday.

"We have to do this in the shortest time possible so as to avoid adding to the stress of relatives, Kashcheyev said. "It's so hard for them."

Fifty-six bodies had been identified by late Thursday afternoon, NTV television reported. NTV showed a hall in the Irkutsk airport where distraught relatives were trying to get information about the passengers.

Klebanov said the identification process could go on for some time.

"Identification will go on all weekend, day and night. No one knows how soon it will be over," Klebanov was quoted by Interfax as saying.

President Vladimir Putin urged aviation authorities on Wednesday to step up their efforts to ensure flight safety.

But Deputy Transport Minister Karl Ruppel said Thursday that any work to improve safety would have to wait until after the crash was investigated.

"It's early to talk of any measures yet," Ruppel was quoted by Interfax as saying. "When the investigation is conducted and the reason for this tragedy is determined, then we can talk about measures."

While investigators tried to piece together what happened during the Tu-154's final moments, the press was awash Thursday with theories.

The Kommersant newspaper quoted decorated Soviet pilot Viktor Alexandrov as saying that the most likely explanation was pilot error. Kommersant said that the captain of the doomed aircraft had 20 years of experience but only started flying the Tu-154 two years ago.

The newspaper also quoted unidentified sources with the Vladivostokavia airline as saying that the two fuel pumps — affecting two of the Tu-154's three engines — had broken down and been repaired over the past two weeks. The sources said perhaps a similar malfunction had occurred on the jet's last flight.

Vremya Novostei linked the crash to pilot error or misdirection from air traffic controllers in Irkutsk.

Some television reports suggested that the landing pattern for the Irkutsk airport is difficult to follow.

Izvestia bemoaned the fact that Vladivostokavia had recently purchased the aircraft from a Chinese airline, which had flown it for 14 years. The newspaper said poor maintenance was usually at fault in previous Tu-154 crashes.

Chinese civil aviation authorities ordered airlines to get rid of all Soviet-built aircraft before July 1.

Vladovostokavia began flying the plane after giving it a complete overhaul two months ago, according to federal aviation officials.

Irkutsk began drawing up plans Thursday to construct a cathedral at the crash site as a memorial for the victims, Interfax reported. In 1999, Irkutsk built a small chapel in memory of 70 people who died when a mammoth An-124 military cargo plane plunged into a city apartment block.