BESOVETS, Russia (Reuters) - A passenger jet slammed into the ground and caught fire while trying to land on a foggy night in northwestern Russia, killing 44 people and leaving eight survivors badly hurt, officials said on Tuesday.
Authorities quickly blamed the pilot for the deadliest crash in Russia since Polish President Lech Kaczyski's plane went down in April 2010, saying he had apparently tried to land despite bad weather and poor visibility.
The Tupolev-134, with 43 passengers and nine crew, crashed on a roadside 700 meters (2,300 feet) short of the runway at the Besovets airport outside the northern city of Petrozavodsk at 11:40 p.m. local time (3:40 p.m. EDT) on Monday.
"The preliminary information is that 44 people were killed," Emergency Situations Ministry spokeswoman Irina Andriyanova said. "Eight people were injured and seven of them are in a very serious condition."
The plane veered off course while coming in to land and controllers ordered the pilot to circle again, but it hit a power line, briefly blacking out the runway lights, Itar-Tass news agency cited a local emergency official as saying.
The plane scraped the treetops and hit a motorway near the airport, breaking into pieces. Photos and video footage showed flames shooting from the wreckage, body parts lying on the road and the plane's wheels lying upside down by the roadside.
"I managed to take a woman or a girl out of there, she was light," news website www.lifenews.ru quoted a witness as saying. He said he and his father had removed several more people before the plane blew up.
"I didn't have time to do anything else, it all started to explode," he said. "Everything caught fire, there was no way to get close."
Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, who oversees Russia's aviation industry, said pilot error was the most likely cause.
"From the initial external data the pilot's mistake is clear," Ivanov said in Paris.
"In bad weather conditions he veered to the right of the runway and in foggy conditions searched for the runway visually until the last minute, did not find it, and what happened happened," Ivanov said.
The plane hit a car on the road, dragging it under the fuselage, Itar-Tass reported. It was unclear how many people were in the car.
10-YEAR-OLD FIGHTS FOR LIFE
Www.lifenews.ru, which posted a full list of passengers, said a 10-year-old boy named Anton had survived the crash but had an open hip wound and had lost a lot of blood. His 14-year-old sister was also injured and in hospital.
Six of those hurt were to be flown to Moscow for treatment but the boy was close to death and would remain in Petrozavodsk, Itar-Tass quoted Health Minister Tatyana Golikova as saying.
"He is in extremely grave condition," she said.
The passengers included two Ukrainians, a Swede, a Dutch national and four people with both Russian and U.S. citizenship, the Emergency Situations Ministry said. Germany's foreign office said a man with German-Russian dual citizenship was killed.
President Dmitry Medvedev offered his condolences to victims' relatives and ordered authorities to aid survivors, the Kremlin said. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin also offered his condolences, the government website said.
A video made by a witness on her mobile phone and broadcast on state-run Rossiya-24 television showed flames soaring from the wreckage into the night sky near where the plane crashed, in the region of Kareliya 700 km (430 miles) northwest of Moscow.
"Everything was on fire," a witness who declined to give his name told the television station. A photographer saw charred wreckage and dozens of emergency workers and firemen.
Lifenews quoted a traffic controller at the airport, Sergei Shmatkov, as saying the pilot rejected his advice to circle again. The pilot reported passing a marker 6,600 meters from the runway, but the plane disappeared from Shmatkov's radar screen and never came into view, he said.
"Visibility was poor because of a thick fog, just 2,100 meters, and the darkness -- difficult weather," Shmatkov was quoted as saying.
Medvedev, who has swapped his Tupolev for a French-made executive jet, in April criticized flaws in domestically-built planes and the nation's poor safety record.
In April last year, Polish President Kaczynski's official Tupolev Tu-154 plane crashed near Smolensk airport in western Russia when it missed the runway in dense fog after the pilot rejected controllers' advise to land elsewhere.
All 96 people on board died including Kaczynski, his wife and a large number of senior officials. A Russian investigation blamed the crash on pilot error.
"Unfortunately this reminds one of the catastrophe near Smolensk," Ivanov said of the crash. He spoke in France during a visit with Putin, who was due to attend the Le Bourget airshow on Tuesday.
The Tu-134 plane that crashed on Monday was operated by the private company RusAir and was traveling from Moscow's Domodedovo airport. RusAir, which specializes in charter flights, declined immediate comment.
The Tu-134 is a Soviet aircraft whose maiden flight was in 1967. It was unclear when the plane which crashed was made.
The aircraft's black boxes have been recovered.
(Additional reporting by Gleb Bryanski in Paris; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Alexei Anishchuk; editing by Steve Gutterman, Jon Boyle and Jan Harvey)