A Jet carrying a Russian ice hockey team to their first match of the season has crashed on take-off, killing at least 43 people including several Olympic and former NHL stars, The Australian reported today.
The Yak-42 was flying members of three-time Russian champions Lokomotiv Yaroslavl to a season-opening match in the Belarussian capital Minsk when it went down a few moments into the flight some 300 km northeast of Moscow.
The chief local surgeon told Channel One television that one Russian player and a crew member had survived the crash in grave condition.
The crash occurred near the site of an annual political conference to be attended Thursday by President Dmitry Medvedev ahead of key parliamentary and presidential elections.
By grim coincidence, Medvedev, who is also expected to tour the scene of the wreckage, was set to speak from Lokomotiv’s ice hockey arena which has been turned into the forum venue for the two-day event.
Thousands of the team’s fans flocked to the ice arena in the evening for a candlelight vigil placing heaps of roses and fan scarves near its walls.
Russia’s main Channel One television interrupted regular broadcasting to discuss the tragedy’s impact on society and sports.
The sorrow spread across the global sporting community as nations from Canada to Latvia mourned the loss of some of their nations’ biggest stars.
“Though it occurred thousands of miles away from our home arenas, this tragedy represents a catastrophic loss to the hockey world, including the NHL family, which lost so many fathers, sons, teammates and friends who at one time excelled in our league,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
Among those killed were the team’s Canadian coach Brad McCrimmon — a former assistant with the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings — goalie and former Swedish Olympic champion Stefan Liv as well as Slovak ex-NHL standout Pavol Demitra.
Three Czech stars — Jan Marek, Josef Vasicek and Karel Rachunek — were also among the dead
Thirty-one-year-old center Marek and 32-year-old defenceman Rachunek were world champions from 2010, while the 31-year-old centre Vasicek had a world title from 2005.
The local emergencies ministry said the plane began listing to the left only seconds into the afternoon flight and crashed about 500 metres away from the Tunoshna airport.
Initial reports said the jet may have hit a local radar antenna and the twisted wreckage of the aircraft lay buried in the Tunoshna River as divers searched for signs of life.
“We saw a plane and then heard a boom. There was a huge flame that quickly turned to smoke,” said 16-year-old witness Andrei Gorshkov.
“It was so scary, we did not know what to do,” he told AFP.
“The plane failed to reach the required altitude, hit an obstacle and started falling to pieces. It burst into flames on impact,” a local police official was quoted as saying.
The crash revived memories of an August 1979 disaster that claimed the lives of 17 football players from the Tashkent side Pakhtakor.
The popular hockey side was founded in 1959 and last won the country’s title in the 2002-2003 season. It also enjoys a national following and recently attracted several younger stars from the NHL.
One of those killed included 23-year-old former New Jersey Devils player Alexander Vasyunov — a Yaroslavl native with many local friends.