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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

2 Planes Fall From the Sky, All 89 Dead

APEmergency Situations Ministry soldiers walking near the debris of a Volga-Aviaexpress Tu-134 near the village of Buchalki in the Tula region on Wednesday morning.
Two southbound airliners fell from the sky almost simultaneously Tuesday night after taking off from Moscow's Domodedovo Airport, killing all 89 people aboard and raising fears of a terrorist attack.

The first plane, a Tu-134 jet operated by small regional carrier Volga-Aviaexpress, went off radar screens at 10:56 p.m., and eyewitnesses reported hearing an explosion before it slammed into the ground about 200 kilometers south of Moscow in the Tula region, the Emergency Situations Ministry said.

Three minutes earlier, at 10:53, a Sibir Tu-154 jet flying near Rostov-on-Don triggered a hijack alert, said Yury Batagov, a Rostov air traffic controller.

Attempts to contact the plane failed, and it disappeared from radar screens moments later, Batagov said by telephone.

Sibir said the plane crashed six minutes later, at 10:59. Early indications suggest it exploded in midair, it said.

The first jet was headed to Volgograd with 35 passengers and eight crewmembers.

The Sibir plane, carrying 38 passengers and eight crewmembers, was flying to Sochi, the Black Sea resort where President Vladimir Putin was on vacation.

In the wee hours of Wednesday, Putin ordered the Federal Security Service to investigate the crashes. He returned to Moscow later in the day.

Federal Security Service spokesman Sergei Ignatchenko said an initial study of the wreckage showed no terrorist act was carried out aboard the two planes, Channel One television reported.

"At the moment, the main theory is a violation of civilian aircraft rules," said another FSB spokesman, Nikolai Zakharov, Interfax reported.

He said technical failure, low-quality fuel, fueling violations or pilot error may be to blame.

But Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov told Putin that terrorism has not been ruled out.

"We are examining a number of versions, among them a terrorist act and human and technical factors," Ustinov was quoted by Itar-Tass as saying.

Fears of terrorist attacks have been high ahead of Sunday's vote in Chechnya for a president to replace Akhmad Kadyrov, killed in a bomb blast in May.

Chechen rebel envoy Akhmed Zakayev told Ekho Moskvy radio from London that Chechen rebel forces and rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov had nothing to do with the crashes.

Security at Moscow's four airports was stepped up before the two planes took off because of an explosion Tuesday at a bus stop on Kashirskoye Shosse, which leads to Domodedovo Airport, a Domodedovo spokeswoman told Interfax. Four people were injured in the blast. (Story, Page 3.)

The spokeswoman said the extra security measures were in place when passengers checked in for the two flights.

Six passengers missed the Sibir flight, and the one bag they checked in was removed from the plane, Interfax said.

Airport security refused to let them fly after they became drunk after checking in, airport spokeswoman Yevgenia Chaplygina told Strana.ru.

The FSB questioned the six people Wednesday, Strana.ru said.

Sibir said an experienced crew was at the helm of its Tu-154. The Volga-Aviaexpress Tu-134 was being piloted by the airline's general director, Yury Baichkin, whom an airline official called "a professional pilot," Interfax reported.

FSB agents were poring over the passenger lists for the two planes and questioning Domodedovo officials and witnesses Wednesday, the FSB said.

Putin appointed Transportation Minister Igor Levitin to head a state commission to investigate the crashes.

An unidentified aviation expert told Interfax that the last time a minister had been named to a crash commission was 20 years ago, showing "special attention is being given to these catastrophes."

The Volga-Aviaexpress crashed near the village of Buchalki, 80 kilometers southeast of Tula, the Emergency Situations Ministry said, Interfax reported.

The plane apparently did not issue a distress call.

State television, Interfax and The Associated Press carried accounts from eyewitnesses who heard several loud explosions before the plane came down.

All 43 bodies were recovered at the crash site by Wednesday afternoon. Local residents helped with the search, and one found a plane seat with a woman holding a child inside a barn in the village of Krutiye Gorky, Interfax said. The seat had plummeted through the barn roof.

The Sibir plane went down 1 hour and 24 minutes after departing from Domodedovo and about 30 minutes before it would have landed in Adler, the airport that serves Sochi. Its wreckage was scattered over a 40- to 50-kilometer area around the Rostov region village of Gluboky, the regional emergency chief told AP.

Sibir said the scattered debris suggests the plane had blown up in midair.

"The wide distribution of large fragments indirectly confirms the conjecture that the plane broke up in midair because of an explosion," it said in a statement.

Sibir confirmed that the plane had sent out a hijack alert before crashing, saying it had been notified about the alert Tuesday night by military air traffic controllers, who monitor national airspace in conjunction with civilian controllers.

The Emergency Situations Ministry, however, said the Sibir pilots had radioed an SOS, not a hijack alert.

Only 22 bodies were found in Rostov by late Wednesday, Interfax said.

None of the bodies recovered from either crash showed any burns -- in what would have been an indication of on-board explosions, local emergency officials told Interfax.

There were signs that the aircraft had depressurized in flight, said Rostov Airport's search and rescue chief Rudolf Chernenko, who examined the site.

At least one foreigner was among the dead, Israeli citizen David Coen, the Israeli Embassy said, Interfax reported. He was aboard the Volga-Aviaexpress.

Volgograd authorities said they will provide buses for relatives to travel to the crash site and will pay compensation of 50,000 rubles to people who lost loved ones.

Sibir was arranging to fly relatives to the site, Interfax said.

World leaders expressed condolences Wednesday. Russia's Olympic team observed a moment of silence in Athens.

Putin called for a national day of mourning on Thursday.

Sibir is the country's second-largest airline, after Aeroflot. One of its Tu-154 jets was accidentally shot down over the Black Sea by a Ukrainian missile in 2001.

Volga-Aviaexpress had a fleet of six small jets.

Staff Writer Lyuba Pronina contributed to this report.