41 people including at least two children died after a Russian passenger plane made an emergency landing and erupted in a huge ball of fire and black smoke at Moscow's busiest airport on Sunday, investigators said.
Dramatic footage that went viral on social media showed Aeroflot's Sukhoi Superjet 100 aircraft crash-landing and then speeding along the runway at Sheremetyevo international airport, flames pouring from its fuselage.
Passengers could be seen leaping onto an inflatable slide at the front and running from the blazing plane as huge black columns of smoke billowed into the sky.
"There were 78 people including crew members on board the plane," the Investigative Committee said in a statement, adding that the plane had been flying to the northwestern Russian city of Murmansk.
"According to the updated info which the investigation has as of now, 37 people survived."
A spokeswoman for the investigators confirmed the death toll was 41.
Another 11 people were injured, Dmitry Matveyev, the Moscow region's health minister said earlier in the day.
"Horror before our eyes"
Witness Alyona Osokina said she was inside the terminal when she suddenly saw a plane on fire rushing along the runway.
"The blaze was devouring the plane," she told Rain TV.
Osokina said that fire engines had arrived quickly but could not immediately put out the blaze.
"This horror and tragedy happened before our eyes," she said, adding that those who managed to flee the plane then walked calmly towards the airport.
"I believe they were in a state of deep shock."
The jet carrying 73 passengers and five crew members had just left Sheremetyevo when the crew issued a distress signal, officials said.
"Flight Su-1492 took off on schedule at 6.02pm (11.02pm, Singapore time)," said a statement from the airport.
"After the take-off, the crew reported an anomaly and decided to come back to the departure airport. At 6.30pm, the aircraft made an emergency landing," it added.
Russia's flagship carrier said the plane had to return to the airport "due to a technical reason" and its engines caught fire upon landing. Previous reports had said the fire broke out in mid-air.
The jet reportedly managed to land on its second attempt, hitting the ground with its landing gear first and then its nose.
The plane's fuel tanks were full and a much bigger death toll could have been a real possibility, aviation experts said.
Investigators said they were looking into various lines of inquiry and it was premature to draw any conclusions about the cause of the accident.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had offered his condolences to the victims' loved ones, the Kremlin said.
He has also said the investigation "should be as thorough as possible," the Kremlin added.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev ordered a special committee to investigate the disaster.
The Murmansk region - where many of the casualties are believed to be from - will go into a three-day period of mourning beginning Monday.
Some flights have been diverted to other Moscow airports or Nizhny Novgorod, some 400km east of the Russian capital.
Numerous Aeroflot flights are expected to be affected in the coming days.
No official cause has been given for the disaster.
The Investigative Committee said it had opened an investigation and was looking into whether the pilots had breached air safety rules.
Some passengers blamed bad weather and lightning.
"We took off and then lightning struck the plane," the Komsomolskaya Pravda daily cited one surviving passenger, Pyotr Egorov, as saying.
"The plane turned back and there was a hard landing. We were so scared, we almost lost consciousness. The plane jumped down the landing strip like a grasshopper and then caught fire on the ground."
State TV broadcast mobile phone footage shot by another passenger in which people could be heard screaming.
The Interfax news agency cited an unnamed "informed source" as saying the evacuation of the plane had been delayed by some passengers insisting on collecting their hand luggage first.
Russian news agencies reported that injured passengers were being treated in hospitals.
The Flightradar24 tracking service showed that the plane had circled twice over Moscow before making an emergency landing after just under 30 minutes in the air.
The plane's under-carriage gave way on impact and its engines caught fire.
Interfax cited a source as saying the plane had only succeeded making an emergency landing on the second attempt and that some of the aircraft's systems had then failed.
The emergency landing was so hard that debris had found its way into the engines, sparking a fire that swiftly engulfed the rear of the fuselage, the same source said.
Russian investigators said they were looking into various versions.
Russian news agencies reported that the plane had been produced in 2017 and had been serviced as recently as April this year.
Aeroflot has long shaken off its troubled post-Soviet safety record and now has one of the world's most modern fleets on international routes where it relies on Boeing and Airbus aircraft.
Russian officials are keen for Aeroflot to buy more Sukhoi Superjets, a regional airliner, for domestic flights to support the country's fledgling civil aircraft industry. The plane is built in Russia's Far East.
A Sukhoi Superjet crashed in Indonesia in 2012, killing all 45 people on board in an accident blamed on human error.
The Superjet entered service in 2011 and was the first new passenger jet developed in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union.
It has been hit, however, by sporadic concerns over safety and reliability, including a December 2016 grounding after a defect was discovered in an aircraft's tail section.
Russian officials said on Sunday it was premature to talk of grounding the Sukhoi Superjet for now. The plane is predominantly used by Russian airlines like Aeroflot, but is also used by a few other foreign operators, including a low-cost Mexican airline.
The government offered subsidies to encourage Russian airlines to buy the Superjet and Aeroflot became its main operator. In 2018, it announced a record order of 100 Superjet-100s.
After the tragedy some suggested that Russia may be better off abandoning the Sukhoi Superjet altogether.
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