A Russian cargo plane on Monday brought the first bodies of Russian victims killed in a plane crash in Egypt home to St. Petersburg, a city awash in grief for its missing residents.
The Metrojet Airbus A321-200 crashed Saturday in the Sinai Peninsula 23 minutes after taking off from the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh en route to St. Petersburg. Russian officials say it broke up at high altitude, scattering fragments of wreckage and bodies over a wide area in the Sinai.
All 224 people on board died, all but five of them Russians.
The Russian government plane brought 140 passengers to St. Petersburg’s Pulkovo airport, touching down in the early morning dark. Emergency Situations Minister Vladimir Puchkov said in a televised news conference that another plane with more crash victims will travel from Cairo to St. Petersburg late Monday.
Puchkov said the search for bodies at the Sinai crash site should wrap up by 10 p.m. local time.
President Vladimir Putin declared a nationwide day of mourning on Sunday, and flags flew at half-staff across the country. St. Petersburg, where many of the victims are from, is holding three days of mourning through Tuesday.
Hundreds of mourners in Russia’s second-largest city on Sunday brought flowers, pictures of the victims, stuffed animals and paper planes Sunday to the city’s airport. Others went to churches and lit candles in memory of the dead.
In the Sinai, aviation experts and search teams have been combing a 16 square kilometer area (more than 6 square miles) to find bodies and pieces of the jet. The Egyptian government said by midday Sunday, 163 bodies had been recovered.
Alexander Neradko, head of Russia’s federal aviation agency, told reporters on Sunday that the large area over which plane debris fragments were found indicates the jet disintegrated while flying at high altitude. He would not comment on any possible reason for the crash, citing the ongoing investigation.
An Egyptian official had previously said before the plane lost contact with air traffic controllers, the pilot radioed that it was experiencing technical problems and he intended to try to land at the nearest airport.
A local affiliate of the extremist Islamic State group claimed it brought down the aircraft, which crashed in the northern Sinai where the Egyptian military and security forces have battled militants for years. Russian officials have dismissed that claim.
When planes do break up in midair it’s usually because of one of three factors: a catastrophic weather event, a midair collision or an external threat, such as a bomb or a missile.
With no indication that those events played a role in the crash, Todd Curtis, a former safety engineer with Boeing, said investigators will be looking at more unusual events, such as an on-board fire or corrosion that caused a structural failure.
The flight recorders will provide key information, including the plane’s airspeed and whether it was on autopilot.
Alexander Smirnov, Metrojet’s deputy director, described the A321 as a reliable aircraft that would not fall into a spin even if the pilots made a grave error because automatic systems correct crew mistakes.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi cautioned that the cause of the crash may not be known for months.
“It’s very important that this issue is left alone and its causes are not speculated on,” he told top government officials, including members of the military and security forces. The investigation “will take a long time” and “needs very advanced technologies.”