MOSCOW – A Russian passenger jet carrying 124 people caught fire as it taxied down a snowy runway in Siberia and then exploded Saturday, killing three people and injuring 43, including six who were badly burned, officials said.
Most of the passengers and crew were evacuated before the explosion, though people on board described a chaotic scene as the burning plane filled with thick, black smoke and panicked passengers climbed over one another to rush through flames to escape.
Emergency services spokesman Vadim Grebennikov said the fire, which began in one of the engines as the plane taxied for takeoff, caused a powerful blast that destroyed the Tu-154 aircraft and spread flames across 1,000 square meters (11,000 square feet).
Russian television showed video taken with a mobile telephone of the burning plane, its center a giant fireball. All that remained afterward was the tail section and part of a wing.
Grebennikov said 10 people were seriously injured, including six who were badly burned and four who suffered broken bones or other trauma. Most of the other injured passengers sought treatment for poisoning after inhaling toxic fumes.
The plane, which belonged to the regional Kogalymavia airline, was to fly from the western Siberian town of Surgut to Moscow.
Among the passengers were members of the Russian pop group Na-Na, who described the panic on board the plane.
"First we heard a clap and then there were flames in the back of the plane and people immediately panicked," group member Yury Rymarev said on NTV television. He said flight attendants tried to calm the passengers, but the flames began to spread, especially after one of the passengers opened an emergency exit and air rushed in.
The plane quickly filled up with smoke that was black and acrid from burning plastic, Rymarev said.
Another group member, Sergei Grigoryev, who was sitting in the back of plane, described how passengers clambered over the heads of those in front of them as they rushed to get out. "My whole life flashed before my eyes and I'm still upset," he wrote on the website of Na-Na, a group that was popular in Russia in the 1990s.
A third member of the group, Vladimir Politov, said some people were so desperate to get out that they ran right through the flames, the RIA Novosti news agency reported.
He and other passengers described difficulties with opening the emergency exits, saying all or most of the people got out through one exit over a wing.
"Only one exit was working. We didn't see the middle exit. It seems it couldn't be opened — something was wrong with it," passenger Olga Sytnik told a local television station. "People got out of the plane and found themselves on the wing. Some kind of stairs were put there for them and people started to go down. But before that there were a lot of people on the wing. Some people just jumped down from the wing to the ground and ran away limping."
All three engines on the Tu-154 are located in the back of the aircraft. Saturday's fire appeared to have started in the engine mounted over the rear of the plane.
The Tu-154 has been the workhorse of the Soviet and post-Soviet civilian aviation industry, first entering service in the 1970s. But after a series of crashes involving the aging fleet raised safety concerns, flagship carrier Aeroflot withdrew all of its Tu-154s from service, with the last flight a year ago.
However, the midrange jet remains the mainstay of smaller airlines across Russia and the former Soviet Union. It is banned from parts of Europe due to excessive engine noise.
Just last month, two people were killed and 83 injured in an accident involving engine failure on a Tu-154. Two of the engines failed shortly after takeoff from a Moscow airport and the third cut out as the plane made an emergency landing. It skidded off the snowy runway and broke apart.