ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) — Only an external impact could have caused a Russian plane to dive into the Egyptian desert, killing all 224 people on board, the airline said Monday, adding to a series of incomplete and confusing statements from investigators that left unclear why the plane broke up in mid-flight.
“We rule out a technical fault of the plane or a pilot error,” said Alexander Smirnov, deputy general director of Metrojet. “The only possible explanation could be an external impact on the airplane.”
But when pressed for more details about the type of impact and what could have caused it, Smirnov insisted that he was not at liberty to discuss details because the investigation was ongoing. He also did not explain whether he meant something had hit the plane or that some external factor caused the crash.
Viktor Yung, another deputy director general of Metrojet, said the crew did not send a distress call and they did not contact traffic controllers before the crash.
An Egyptian official had previously said the pilot radioed that the plane was experiencing technical problems and he intended to try to land at the nearest airport.
The Airbus A321-200 crashed from 31,000 feet in the Sinai Peninsula just 23 minutes after taking off from the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh en route to St. Petersburg.
Smirnov said the plane dropped 300 kph (186 mph) in speed and 1.5 kilometers (about 5,000 feet) in altitude one minute before it crashed.
Alexander Neradko, head of Russia’s federal aviation agency, told reporters on Sunday that the large area over which plane debris fragments were found indicates the jet disintegrated while flying at high altitude. He would not comment on any possible reason for the crash, citing the ongoing investigation.
When planes do break up in midair, experts say it’s usually because of one of three factors: a catastrophic weather event, a midair collision or an external threat, such as a bomb or a missile.
With no indication that those events played a role in the crash, Todd Curtis, a former safety engineer with Boeing, said investigators will be looking at more unusual events, such as an on-board fire or corrosion that caused a structural failure.
A local affiliate of the extremist Islamic State group has claimed it brought down the aircraft, which crashed in the northern Sinai, where the Egyptian military and security forces have battled militants for years. Russian officials have dismissed that claim as not credible.
British military analyst Paul Beaver said he thought the crash was most likely caused by a bomb on board, saying he was certain IS does not possess a missile system — such as the Russian BUK — capable of hitting the plane.
“I’m pretty convinced that ISIS doesn’t have a ‘double-digit’ SAM (surface-to-air missile) that is necessary to go up as far as 31,000 feet,” he said, using an alternative acronym for the terror group. “That’s a very serious piece of equipment, and I don’t think they have that sophistication.”
He also said the Sinai desert is well-scrutinized by intelligence agencies, so a missile would have been seen.
The flight recorders will provide key information, including the plane’s airspeed and whether it was on autopilot. Russian officials were shown the black boxes found at the site of the crash in the Sinai Peninsula and emergency situations minister Vladimir Puchkov says they are in a good condition, Russian news agencies reported on Monday.
At the crash site, emergency workers and aviation experts from Russia and Egypt swept across the barren terrain Monday, searching for more victims and examining the debris for more clues as to the cause of the crash.
A Russian cargo plane brought the first bodies of Russian victims killed in the crash to St. Petersburg, where many of them are from. The city, awash in grief for its missing residents, is holding three days of mourning through Tuesday.
The government plane brought 140 bodies to St. Petersburg’s Pulkovo airport, touching down in the dark. The bodies were then taken to a city morgue and a crematorium, where Russian forensic experts immediately began working to identify the victims, said Yulia Shoigu, a Russian Emergency Situations official.
The search for bodies at the Sinai crash site should wrap up late Monday night and another plane with more crash victims’ bodies will then travel from Cairo to St. Petersburg, Puchkov told a televised news conference.
President Vladimir Putin declared Sunday a nationwide day of mourning and flags flew at half-staff across the country.
Mourners have been coming to St. Petersburg’s airport since Saturday with flowers, pictures of the victims, stuffed animals and paper planes. Others went to churches and lit candles in memory of the dead.
In the Sinai, aviation experts and search teams have been combing a 16 square kilometer area (more than 6 square miles) to find bodies and pieces of the jet. The Egyptian government said Sunday that 163 bodies had been recovered.
Russia has sent over 100 emergency workers to Egypt to help with the investigation into the crash, and aviation teams from France, Germany and Airbus are also working in Egypt.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on Monday urged international experts to get involved in the investigation.
Smirnov, Metrojet’s deputy director, described the A321 as a reliable aircraft that would not fall into a spin even if the pilots made a grave error because its automatic systems would correct crew mistakes.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi cautioned that the cause of the crash may not be known for months.
“It’s very important that this issue is left alone and its causes are not speculated on,” he told a meeting of top government officials. The investigation “will take a long time” and “needs very advanced technologies.”
Associated Press writers Nataliya Vasilyeva and Katherine Jacobsen in Moscow contributed to this report.
This article was written by DMITRY LOVETSKY from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.