‘External impact’ brought down Russian jet in Sinai, airline says

Metrojet rules out technical problem and pilot error, but coy about details over what caused passenger plane to crash in Egypt, killing 224

Debris of the A321 Russian airliner a day after the plane crashed in Wadi al-Zolomat, a mountainous area in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, on November 1, 2015. (AFP/Khaled Desouki)
Debris of the A321 Russian airliner a day after the plane crashed in Wadi al-Zolomat, a mountainous area in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, on November 1, 2015. (AFP/Khaled Desouki)

A Russian passenger plane that crashed in the Sinai desert was downed by “an external impact,” a top Russian airline official said Monday, ruling out the possibility of technical fault of pilot error.

Alexander Smirnov, the deputy general director of Metrojet, said the cause of the crash “could only have been an external impact on the plane” in the air.

When pressed for an explanation about what could have caused this impact, Smirnov insisted that he was not at liberty to discuss details because the investigation into the crash, which left 224 people dead, was ongoing.

Smirnov also said the crew did not send a distress call and did not contact traffic controllers before the crash.

“The crew totally lost control and for that reason there was not one attempt to get in contact,” Smirnov said, adding that the plane was in “excellent technical condition.”

Smirnov said the Airbus A320-200 dropped 300 kph (186 mph) in speed and 1.5 kilometers (about 5,000 feet) in altitude one minute before it crashed into Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

The announcement came a day after Egyptian officials ruled out the possibility that the plane was downed by a missile, as jihadists affiliated with the Islamic State group claimed.

Aviation agency chief Alexander Neradko said in televised remarks in Cairo on Monday that it was premature of Metrojet to comment on the possible cause and said the conclusions can be drawn only after the fragments and the contents of the black boxes have been studied.

Neradko also mentioned that Egyptian authorities will not begin studying the black boxes until representatives of all the involved parties arrive. This includes not only Russia and Egypt but also France, Germany and Ireland, Neradko said.

The Metrojet plane crashed Saturday morning 23 minutes after taking off from Sharm el-Sheikh, killing all 224 on board, the vast majority of them Russians.

President Vladimir Putin described the crash as a “huge tragedy” in his first comments on the disaster at a meeting with the country’s transport minister Monday, Russian news agencies reported.

“Without any doubt everything must be done to create an objective picture of events so that we know what happened and can react accordingly,” Putin said.

The Kremlin said the Russian president did not intend to speak to the nation or visit the relatives.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow “cannot exclude any version” of what caused the crash as investigations were still ongoing, but warned against “guessing” at the reason.

Russian investigators say the plane broke up at high altitude over the Sinai Peninsula but have so far refrained from naming possible causes.

The shoulder-to-air missiles known by Egyptian intelligence to be in the hands of Sinai terror groups have an altitude range less than half the altitude the Metrojet plane was flying at.

Earlier Monday, Yulia Shoigu, chief of the emergency situations ministry’s psychological service, said on television that forensic experts have begun identifying the bodies of the victims.

Russian Ministry for Emergency Situations employees prepare to load the bodies of the victims from the ministry's plane at the airport in St Petersburg on November 2, 2015. (Dmitry Lovetsky/AFP/POOL)
Russian Ministry for Emergency Situations employees prepare to load the bodies of the victims from the ministry’s plane at the airport in St Petersburg on November 2, 2015. (Dmitry Lovetsky/AFP/POOL)

Russia has sent over 100 emergency workers and aviation experts to help Egypt examine the crash site in the Sinai Peninsula. French, German and Airbus aviation teams are also helping the investigation.

A Russian government plane on Monday brought 140 bodies of plane crash victims to St. Petersburg, where most of the passengers were from. Another plane will be taking more crash victims’ bodies to St. Petersburg from Cairo late Monday night.

The emergency situations minister, Vladimir Puchkov, said that the search for the bodies of victims of the plane crash in Egypt would wrap up in a day.

Puchkov examined the black boxes from the plane and said they were in good condition.

The crash site in the Wadi al-Zolomat area of North Sinai was littered with blackened aircraft parts and the smell of burnt metal lingered on Sunday.

A representative of the ministry told Russian news agencies that investigators had so far found 12 segments of the plane’s fuselage and personal belongings.

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