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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Jet Hits Air Show Crowd, 83 Dead

ReutersThe Su-27 fighter plane crashing in a ball of fire at the air show Saturday in Lviv, Ukraine. At least 83 people were killed and 116 injured in the accident.
LVIV, Ukraine -- An Su-27 fighter jet clipped the ground and sheared through a crowd of spectators Saturday at an air show in western Ukraine before exploding in a ball of fire, killing at least 83 people and injuring 116 in one of the world's deadliest air show accidents.

The two crew ejected and survived just after the aircraft first grazed the ground and slid backward on its wingtip and nose through hundreds of spectators who had been watching on a clear day at the Sknyliv air base in the city of Lviv.

Bohdan Hupalo, 18, said he was posing for a picture when the plane came down. He dove to the ground and saw the jet race over him, missing by only a few meters.

"There weren't any survivors among those who fell down late -- they were cut down like grass," he said. When Hupalo opened his eyes, he said he was surrounded by human remains.

"I will never forget this tragedy," he said from his hospital bed, where he was being treated for an injured back.

Yevhen Marchuk, the chief of Ukraine's Security and Defense Council who is heading the investigation, told a news conference Sunday that the remains of 25 victims had been identified, but the badly mangled condition of many other victims was making the identification process difficult.

"The highest priority is to identify these people," he said.

He said 19 children were among the 83 dead.

Defense Minister Vladimir Shkidchenko on Sunday tendered his resignation. The resignation was being considered by President Leonid Kuchma, the Defense Ministry's press service said.

Kuchma appointed Shkidchenko, a former army general, last October to replace Oleksandr Kuzmuk, who was fired after a Ukrainian missile downed a Sibir passenger jet over the Black Sea.

Meanwhile, officials said that the commander of the air force and a top officer from the 14th Air Corps, who were fired by Kuchma on Saturday, have been arrested.

General Colonel Vladimir Strelnikov and Lieutenant Colonel S. Opyshchak are suspected of committing a crime classified as "negligent attitude to the military service that led to heavy consequences," the Prosecutor General's Office said. They are being held in jail pending investigation.

A court will decide whether to arrest the two pilots after they recover from their injuries, prosecutors said.

Two main causes were being considered as the cause of the crash: carelessness on the part of the pilots or mechanical failure.

Kuchma declared Monday an official day of national mourning.

Lviv residents on Sunday began two days of mourning, which was announced by the city's governor, Liubomyr Buniak.

Hundreds of anxious relatives waited outside the Lviv morgue while officials tried to identify the victims, whose bodies were being held in refrigerated trucks outside the overcrowded morgue.

Svetlana Atamaniuk, whose daughter and granddaughters were killed, waited with the others for official confirmation of their deaths.

She said that she was at her home across from the airfield when she heard the plane go down. "It was ripping the air," she said.

"My only daughter, her husband and their two daughters are lying in there," she said late Saturday night, waiting outside the morgue for information. "I can't get in, I will be here until the morning," she said.

The Su-27 was in the sky performing low-altitude maneuvers when just before it hit the ground it went silent and banked left -- its wingtip shearing trees and touching another plane on the ground.

Video of the crash showed the jet then sliding backward along the ground on its left wingtip and nose before it began cartwheeling and then exploded, throwing off flaming debris.

After the crash, parents frantically searched for missing children and used the public address system to call out their names. One group of children with cuts on their faces and arms sat stunned on the ground. Severed body parts littered the tarmac at the air base.

More than $1.9 million will be set aside from the federal budget in an initial fund for funerals and first aid for victims, Kuchma said.

About 1,500 people were watching the free air show, which marked the 60th anniversary of the local air force unit.

U.S. President George W. Bush expressed condolences about the plane crash in a letter to Kuchma on Sunday, his spokeswoman Olena Hromnytska said. Similar letters were received from British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac, she said.

Pope John Paul II, in a condolence message sent Sunday, offered prayers for victims and his spiritual closeness for survivors in Lviv, which he visited last year in a pilgrimage.

The Su-27 has been in service since 1985, and its speed and maneuverability made it one of the key planes in the former Soviet air force. It resembles the U.S. F-15 Eagle fighter, with two tail fins and twin engines.

One of the world's most deadly previous air show crashes was at a U.S. air base in Germany in 1988, when Italian jets performing a complicated maneuver collided and spiraled into the crowd, killing 70 and injuring at least 400.