BISHKEK (Reuters) – Kyrgyzstan announced a national day of mourning for Tuesday after 65 people died at the weekend in one of the tiny Central Asian state’s worst air disasters.
Russia was to send air crash experts to the former Soviet state, independent since 1991, to help examine the flight data recorders for clues as to why the Tehran-bound Boeing 737-200 crashed late on Sunday.
“This is the worst air disaster in recent years. We have never faced such a tragedy,” said Health Ministry spokeswoman Yelena Bayalinova.
The Kyrgyz government ruled out an act of terrorism.
Survivors said a fireball engulfed the plane when it came down near Bishkek’s main airport at Manas, some 30 km (20 miles) from the Kyrgyz capital.
Ali Khozemi, 39, a businessman from Tehran who was flying with his two sisters, said scorching heat built up inside the plane after the crash.
“At one moment we could not breathe at all because our lungs were burning,” he said. “We were praying to Allah and waiting to die.”
More than 100 people gathered at Bishkek city morgue to identify the bodies of their relatives or friends.
Zumrat, a woman in her 30s, said she could not find her son’s body: “I am still not convinced he is dead, although he is not among the survivors” listed by officials.
Photographs from the crash site released by the state news agency Kabar showed the plane’s smoking fuselage and fragments of aircraft strewn over the ground.
Airport employees who saw the wreckage on Sunday said the tail was the only part of the plane still intact.
Flags will fly at half mast on public buildings on Tuesday and shows, theatres and cinemas will close for the day as a mark of respect for the dead, after President Kurmanbek Bakiyev ordered a day of national mourning.
Russian leader Dmitry Medvedev sent his condolences to the leaders of Iran and Kyrgyzstan after the disaster at Manas, part of which is used by the U.S. military as a base to supply the international force fighting Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan.
The cause of the crash remained unclear, although Prime Minister Igor Chudinov said on Sunday that initial reports suggested the plane had suffered a sudden loss of cabin pressure, causing the pilot to request an emergency landing.
The aircraft, owned by local private carrier Itek-Air, was chartered by an Iranian company.
Transport Minister Nurlan Sulaimanov said the plane, built in 1979, was in good shape and had been inspected only two months ago.
Members of a teenage basketball team were among the dead and officials said many of the victims were so badly burnt that DNA tests would be needed to identify them.
Only 25 of the estimated 90 people aboard the aircraft, survived — 14 of them Kyrgyz nationals and 11 Iranians.
The U.S. embassy in Kazakhstan denied two U.S. basketball players, in Kyrgyzstan on a coaching trip, had taken the ill-fated flight. They in fact flew home from neighboring Kazakhstan.