By seven o’clock local time, there was no hope of finding survivors, but the recovery effort continued regardless.
A convoy of official vehicles, several miles long, lined the narrow country road heading towards Stepanovskoye village, about 30 south-east of Moscow. Nearer the village itself, tractors, monster trucks and snowmobiles ploughed through the snow-covered fields. It was here that locals found the first fragments of bodies and metal.
Saratov Airlines’ ill-fated Flight 703 left Moscow’s Domodedovo airport at 2.21pm local time. It was bound for Orsk, a provincial city on the Kazakhstan border, with a total of 71 people on board. Some time between two and eight minutes after take off, air traffic control lost contact with the crew.
The news broke shortly after 3pm and a range of explanations began to circulate almost immediately.
First, there were reports of a collision with a postal helicopter, franked letters having been found at the scene. This version was quickly denied by the postal service, who said they only use large planes. Flight 703 had simply been carrying a 20kg bag of correspondence. Then, local media suggested that the plane had reported technical problems and had requested an emergency landing at the nearby Zhukovsky airport. This too was denied by the airport and, later, by official investigators.
A short distance away from the crash scene in Stepanovskoye village, locals told The Independent they had heard a loud bang in the moments before the plane fell. Other witnesses reported seeing a flash under the plane’s wing. There was some confusion as to whether the plane was on fire as it fell – some said yes, others no.
Roman Blinok, 45, was at home when he heard the bang. Initially, he feared his roof had fallen in from the snow. But then he realised something more terrible had happened.
“The strange thing was there was just one almighty crash, and nothing else,” he told The Independent. “There was no second thump on the ground and the fragments of the engine I saw were very small. Whatever happened, happened in the air, before it hit the ground.”
By evening, emergency workers and the army had cordoned off the crash zone. A police officer, who asked not to be named, said fragments of bodies and metal had been scattered over an area half a kilometre square.
Aviation expert Vadim Lukashevich said there would be a number of possible explanations for the crash. Weather, technical problems, human error and terrorism were all factors that had to be considered, he said.
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“We can’t be sure until we decipher the black box recordings but weather is unlikely, since conditions were not extreme, and it was a take-off rather than a landing,” he said. “It is likely to be something else.”
The Ukrainian-designed An-148 passenger jet was eight years old, reasonably young in aviation terms. While the aircraft model has been criticised for frequent technical issues, Mr Lukashevich said there it was not inherently dangerous. “This plane has not been involved in a serious incident outside of testing and so it should not have been an issue,” he said.
A spokesman for Saratov Airlines said the plane in question was in good working order and under the control of an experienced pilot. The small regional operator has an unexceptional safety record, with its last major incident in 1991. As per standard procedure, investigators have launched a criminal case into violations of air safety rules.
President Vladimir Putin has ordered a special commission to investigate the crash, his spokesman confirmed.