Anti-crash system switched off
UEBERLINGEN, Germany -- An automatic system alerting air traffic controllers if aircraft are on a collision course was switched off when two planes crashed into each other over Germany, killing 71 people, many of them Russian teenagers.
Only one Swiss air traffic controller was on duty Monday night, police said.
Distraught relatives of the 69 Russians killed in the mid-air crash -- 52 of them youngsters bound for a holiday on the Spanish Costa Brava -- rushed through final preparations on Wednesday to visit the site of the catastrophe.
The mainly Muslim region of Bashkortostan at the foot of the Ural mountains, home to most of the schoolchildren who died, is holding three days of mourning.
Bashkir officials said about 140 people would make a brief journey on Thursday to the crash site by Lake Constance, near Germany's border with Switzerland, to help the authorities identify bodies before returning home in the evening. (Trauma for Russian crash relatives)
Search teams have so far discovered 37 bodies from the collision between the Russian Tupolev 154 and Boeing 757 cargo plane on Monday night which scattered wreckage over a 20-mile area. Two of the bodies -- the pilot and the co-pilot of the cargo plane -- have been identified.
At least 800 police and rescue workers are searching the fields of southern Germany for the rest of the bodies, which they hope to recover by Thursday, German officials said. (Locals in state of shock)
All four "black boxes" -- both cockpit voice recorders and both flight data recorders -- have been recovered to help investigators from Germany, Russia and the U.S. discover the exact chain of events which led to the tragedy. (Crash investigation)
Roger Gaberelle, a spokesman for Skyguide, the Swiss air traffic controllers' body monitoring the flights over southern Germany at the time of the crash, told Reuters that the early-warning system had been shut down for routine maintenance.
"That is always being done at night, because that's when there's the least traffic," he said.
Swiss air traffic officials insist the 50-second warning they gave the Russian pilot was enough time for him to drop the Tupolev Tu-154 he was flying for Bashkirian Airlines out of the way of the Boeing 757.
But German officials said that was far less time than usual, saying pilots usually counted on five to 10 minutes' warning.
The Russian airline defended its pilots, saying they were fluent in English and had thousands of flying hours and experience on overseas missions. Instead, they pointed the finger at the controllers.
The cargo plane was en route to Brussels, Belgium, from the Persian Gulf state of Bahrain with a stop in Bergamo, Italy. The captain of the cargo plane was British and the co-pilot was Canadian.
The Russian plane was carrying 12 crew and 57 passengers, including five adults, nine young children and 43 youngsters between the ages of 12 and 18. The DHL jet was carrying a crew of two.
Some of the teenagers had missed an earlier flight after going to the wrong airport in Moscow and they chartered the doomed flight through Bashkirian Airlines at the last minute. (Victims were holiday-bound)
Khalyaf Ishmuratov, Bashkortostan's deputy prime minister, said local officials would accompany the relatives to the crash scene on Thursday, as would doctors able to provide psychological counselling.
"We plan to try to go and come back in a day. Any parent would want to do this to calm down," Ishmuratov told Reuters.
"People may for instance want to take some of the soil from the spot. It was the same thing with the Kursk," he said, referring to the deaths of 118 Russian sailors in 2000 when the nuclear-powered Kursk submarine sank in Arctic waters.
President Vladimir Putin discussed investigations into the crash on Wednesday with his transport minister and the prosecutor general.
"I have just spoken with Chancellor Schroeder and he told me Germany will do everything necessary to carry out an objective investigation," Putin said in footage from the Kremlin broadcast on Russian television.
In Berlin, Germany's Foreign Ministry said visas were being issued immediately for mourners wishing to visit the crash site. Others traveling later would be granted a visa on arrival, an exception to the rules, a spokesman said.
Russian television said government offices had speeded up procedures to ensure all relatives had valid passports. It also said many relatives wanted the victims placed in a common grave.
Officials said German authorities asked relatives to bring personal effects to help identify bodies, including toothbrushes for possible genetic matching and blood group identification.
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