Rescuers work at the crash site of a Russian Yak-42 jet near the city of Yaroslavl.
Updated Sep 7, 2011 5:25 PM ET
TUNOSHNA, Russia (AP)
Russia was stunned by its worst-ever sporting tragedy Wednesday when a jet carrying a top hockey team crashed Wednesday moments after takeoff in western Russia, killing at least 43 passengers onboard, officials said. It was one of the worst plane crashes ever involving a sports team.
A Russian plane carrying KHL team Lokomotiv — whose roster included former NHL players — crashed on Sept. 7, killing at least 43 people.The Russian Emergency Situations Ministry said the Yak-42 plane crashed in sunny weather immediately after leaving an airport near the city of Yaroslavl, on the Volga River about 150 miles (240 kilometers) northeast of Moscow. The weather is not believed to be a factor, as it was sunny at the time of the crash.
Russian television showed footage of the flaming wreck in the river as divers worked to recover bodies in what ranks as one of the worst sporting plane crashes of all time.
The plane was carrying the Lokomotiv ice hockey team from Yaroslavl to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, where the team was to play Thursday against Dinamo Minsk in the opening game of the season for the Kontinental Hockey League. The ministry said the plane had 45 people on board, including 37 passengers and eight crew. But other reports put the number of crew at nine.
There were conflicting reports about the fates of at least two players. AFP reported Ruslan Salei, the hard-hitting former Red Wings defensemen, may have traveled to his native Belarus earlier. But Sovetsky Sport said Salei was on the casualty list.
In addition, player Alexander Galimov, who reportedly suffered burns over 90 percent of his body, was initially listed as a survivor, then reported dead, then reported by doctors as still alive but in very critical condition.
Estimates of the number of those aboard ranged from 45 to 47 with the league's official website saying 45.
One crew member was reported to have survived. Another eight died, according to RIA Novosti.
The Emergency Ministry said Czech players Josef Vasicek, Karel Rachunek and Jan Marek, Swedish goalie Stefan Liv, Canadian coach Brad McCrimmon and Latvian defenseman Karlis Skrastins were among those killed.
''This is the darkest day in the history of our sport. This is not only a Russian tragedy, the Lokomotiv roster included players and coaches from 10 nations,'' said Rene Fasel, president of the international Ice Hockey Federation. ''This is a terrible tragedy for the global ice hockey community.''
Several hundred mourning fans wearing jerseys and scarves gathered in the evening at the Yaroslavl Lokomotiv stadium to pay their respects.
In recent years, Russia and the other former Soviet republics have had some of the world's worst air traffic safety records. Experts blame the poor safety record on the age of the aircraft, weak government controls, poor pilot training and a cost-cutting mentality.
The plane that crashed was built in 1993 and belonged to a small Moscow-based Yak Service company.
Swarms of police and rescue crews rushed to Tunoshna, a village with a blue-domed church on the banks of the Volga River. One of the plane's engines could be seen poking out of the river and a flotilla of boats combed the water for bodies. Divers struggled to heft the bodies of large, strong athletes in stretchers up the muddy, steep riverbank.
Resident Irina Prakhova saw the plane going down, then heard a loud bang and saw a plume of smoke.
''It was wobbling in flight, it was clear that something was wrong,'' said Prakhova, who said she was on her way to a local pump to collect buckets of water. ''I saw them pulling bodies to the shore, some still in their seats with seatbelts on.''
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin sent the nation's transport minister to the site, 10 miles (15 kilometers) east of Yaroslavl. President Dmitry Medvedev also planned to tour the crash site.
Lokomotiv Yaroslavl is a leading force in Russian hockey and came third in the KHL last year. McCrimmon, who took over in May, was most recently an assistant coach with the Detroit Red Wings, and played for years in the NHL for Boston, Philadelphia, Detroit, Hartford and Phoenix.
The Russian team also featured several top European players and former NHL stars, including Slovakian forward and national team captain Pavol Demitra, who played in the NHL for the St. Louis Blues and Vancouver Canucks. Demitra, 36, an 11-time 20-goal scorer from Slovakia, played 13 years in the NHL, most recently for the Vancouver Canucks, scoring 304 goals and 768 points in 847 games.
Former New York Rangers player Alexander Karpovtsev, who won the Stanley Cup with the team in 1994, was also on the plane. He worked as an assistant coach for the Russian team.
Alexander Vasyunov, a left wing prospect who played 18 NHL games last season with the New Jersey Devils but had signed a one-year contract with Lokomotiv for this season, was also on the plane.
The KHL is an international club league that pits together teams from Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Latvia and Slovakia. Lokomotiv was a three-time Russian League champion in 1997, 2002-2003. It took bronze last season.
A cup match between hockey teams Salavat Yulaev and Atlant in the central Russian city of Ufa was called off midway after news of the crash was announced by Kontinental Hockey League head Alexander Medvedev. Russian television broadcast images of an empty arena in Ufa as grief-stricken fans abandoned the stadium.
''We will do our best to ensure that hockey in Yaroslavl does not die, and that it continues to live for the people that were on that plane,'' said Russian Ice Hockey Federation President Vladislav Tretyak.
The start of Russia's ice hockey league season was postponed in the wake of the crash.
Tomas Kral, the president of the Czech ice hockey association, was shocked to hear the news of the Czech players' deaths.
''Jan Marek, Karel Rachunek, and Josef Vasicek contributed greatly to the best successes of our ice hockey in the recent years, first of all to the golden medals at the world championships in 2005 and 2010,'' Kral said. ''The were excellent players, but also great friends and personalities. That's how we will remember them.''
Medvedev has announced plans to take aging Soviet-built planes out of service starting next year. The short- and medium-range Yak-42 has been in service since 1980 and about 100 are still being used by Russian carriers.
In June, another Russian passenger jet crashed in the northwestern city of Petrozavodsk, killing 47 people. The crash of that Tu-134 plane has been blamed on pilot error.
In past plane crashes involving sports teams, 75 Marshall University football players, coaches, fans and airplane crew died in Kentucky on Nov. 17, 1970, on the way home from a game. Twenty-six of the dead were players.
Thirty members of the Uruguayan rugby club Old Christians were killed in a crash in the Andes in 1972.
In 1979, a plane heading from Soviet republic of Uzbekistan to Minsk carrying the Pakhtakor Tashkent soccer team collided mid-air with another passenger plane, killing 178 people. Seventeen members of the Pakhtakor team were killed.
The entire 18-member U.S. figure skating team died in a crash on their way to the 1961 world championships in Brussels.
In 1949, the Torino soccer team lost 18 players near Turin, Italy.
A plane crash in 1950 near the Russian city of Sverdlov, now called Yekaterinburg, claimed the lives of 13 players and officials in the air force's ice hockey squad, while the Munich air crash of 1958 cost eight Manchester United players their lives.
NewsCore contributed to this report.