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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tu-154 Carrying Children Collides With 757

APGerman officials inspecting the tail of the crashed Tu-154 jet in Ueberlingen on Tuesday. The plane collided with a DHL cargo jet at an altitude of about 12,000 meters.
UEBERLINGEN, Germany -- A Russian pilot flying children to Spain for vacation had less than a minute to get out of the path of an approaching cargo jet, and it took two warnings before he began descending. But so did the approaching cargo plane, officials said Tuesday.

The resulting collision claimed 71 lives.

Forty-four Bashkir children traveling for a summer vacation were among those killed in the crash of the chartered Bashkirian Airlines Tu-154 jetliner and a Boeing 757 cargo plane operated by the DHL International delivery service over southern Germany just before midnight Monday.

The crash sent flaming debris falling from the night sky into fields, roads and people's yards in a picturesque area of rolling hills in forests on a southern German lake shared with Switzerland and Austria. Authorities said there were fires but no casualties on the ground.

The search for the disaster's cause sparked bitter recriminations. Bashkirian Airlines defended the pilot, Alexander Gross, as an experienced aviator and accused air traffic controllers of failing to prevent the collision.

Officials at Swiss air traffic control, in charge of both planes when they collided, insisted the pilot was given enough time to change course.

Anton Maag, chief of the Zurich control tower, said the first order to go lower was given to the Tu-154 about 50 seconds before the crash -- a time window that "wasn't irresponsible but fairly tight."

But a German pilot representative challenged that view. "Normally we count on five to 10 minutes for two planes heading for a planned crossing of their flight paths to be separated," Georg Fongern, spokesman for

Germany's commercial pilot union, said on ZDF television. "Of course we must ask why the two planes were not brought apart earlier. That would have been the usual thing to do."

Bashkirian Airlines representative Sergei Rybanov said there were 12 crew on its plane.

The DHL cargo plane was carrying two pilots.

Hundreds of rescue officials worked through the night and all day Tuesday sifting through charred bits of wreckage strewn across a 30-kilometer wide area. They found 26 bodies by afternoon -- some still strapped into seats of the plane -- as well as both planes' flight data recorders and cockpit voice recorders.

The information from the recorders is to be retrieved and taken to Germany's aviation authority for analysis Wednesday, Traffic Minister Kurt Bodewig told ARD television.

Large aircraft chunks fell among houses in the village of Owingen, just north of Ueberlingen. A police car on a routine night patrol saw the flash from the collision and the first bodies fall on the road only 50 meters ahead seconds later, police director Hans-Peter Walser said.

"Our house shuddered," said Margarete Lenz, who said she had been lying awake when she heard a sound like a thunderstorm, "I heard the thud when it hit. Then came the explosion and the fireball."

Winfried Rothermel / AP

A crumbled section of the Tu-154 fuselage lying in a field near Ueberlingen, Germany.
A wing and the six-wheel landing gear of the Tu-154 landed in her neighbor's yard, clipping off the tops of four silver birch trees and coming to a rest against a tree 10 meters from the house, leaving a 13-year-old girl and her parents unharmed.

Throughout the area, bodies were covered black plastic sheeting where they were found as authorities worked to set up a makeshift morgue.

Aviation officials said the handover to Swiss air control in the border region was normal procedure. It was also normal for two jets to be at the same altitude when they enter an airspace and it was up to the towers to tell them to make any adjustments, said Gregor Thamm, a spokesman for German air traffic control.

Describing the last seconds of the two planes, Maag of the Zurich control tower said two requests were necessary before the Tu-154 began to descend. At the same time, the DHL plane's automatic collision warning system issued an order to descend, Maag said.

The pilots apparently followed that electronic instruction -- putting them on the collision course.

A Moscow flight safety official said the Tu-154 was equipped with the newest onboard collision prevention and altitude control systems, according to Itar-Tass.

Initially, Swiss air traffic control said it gave the Tu-154 about two minutes' warning and that the pilot responded after the third request. But the Swiss revised their account after German officials began describing the tighter time scenario.

While confusion surrounded the exact timeline of the tower conversations with the Russian plane, there was widespread agreement among experts that Europe's patchwork of air traffic control zones was not the problem.

Herbert Meyer, a spokesman for the International Federation of Air Line Pilots' Associations, said he did not think the fragmentation played a role in causing the crash.

"All the centers know what's coming," he said. "It's not like you're changing frequencies and you're telling them anything new."

President Vladimir Putin dispatched investigators to the crash scene.

DHL International, a package delivery service headquartered in Brussels, Belgium, said its plane was flying from Bahrain to the company's hub in Brussels, after a stopover in Bergamo, Italy.

In Moscow, Bashkirian Airlines director Nikolai Odegov blamed European air traffic controllers for the crash.

"There were no reasons to say that the pilots didn't handle the plane properly," Odegov told reporters. "My theory is that it is the fault of the air traffic controllers. They put the planes on the same path."

He insisted that the pilots all knew English.

Bashkirian Airlines said the chief pilot, Gross, 52, had 12,000 hours of flight time and navigator Sergei Kharlov, 50, had 13,000 hours. Both had international flying experience and had flown UNESCO humanitarian aid flights to Brazil and Pakistan, the airline said.

The Tu-154 was built in 1995.

Families of those dead prepared to leave Ufa for Germany on Tuesday.

The German Embassy said visa application procedures had been waived.