The Associated Press
BATUMI, Georgia - Rescuers recovered two black boxes yesterday from a Russian military plane that crashed into a mountain in western Georgia and killed 86 people, officials said.
The Defense Ministry plane was en route from the Chkalovsky military airfield near Moscow and was attempting to land in harsh weather at a Russian military base near Georgia's Black Sea port of Batumi when it crashed Wednesday night.
Rescuers found the plane's voice and data recorders at the crash site about 15 miles east of Batumi, said Temuri Inaishvili, head of the Emergency Situations Ministry for the Adzharia region, where the plane crashed.
Kakha Beridze, an officer from the Georgian Ministry of Emergency Situations, arrived at the site about three hours after the crash with four other workers.
"Rain was falling, the plane was in pieces and everything was on fire," Beridze said.
"There was no one to save. They were all dead."
The head of the Georgian civil aviation agency, Alexander Silagadze, said the plane had veered off course on approach in "difficult weather conditions."
Another official from the Georgian agency, Zurab Chankotadze, told The Associated Press that radar tracking the plane had shown the pilot did not make the final turn necessary for approaching the landing strip.
"It is so far hard to say whether it was a mistake by the pilot or navigator, or whether the cause was difficult weather conditions," Chankotadze said.
Maj. Gen. Nikolai Zolotov, commander of Russian troops in the Trans-Caucasus region, said the death toll in the crash was 86, including eight children.
The flight was carrying Russian servicemen and their families, as well as 11 crew members. The mail plane would make the trip every two weeks, and relatives would ride on it to visit the servicemen.
An unidentified witness told Russia's ORT television the plane had been in flames before hitting the mountain, called Tirina, or Wailing Mountain. After the crash, three explosions could be heard, witnesses told the AP.
The Il-18 transport crashed 4,250 feet up the mountain, Georgian emergency officials said. Police and military cordoned off a large area and prevented anyone other than emergency workers from approaching.
Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze arrived in Batumi at midday, after speaking by telephone with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. The two presidents said they would launch a joint investigation.
"There are various versions of the tragedy, and a tragic mistake is not ruled out. However, we'll find out what in fact happened in the course of the investigation," Shevardnadze told the AP.
He said today would be a day of mourning.
"What happened is a tragedy for both Russia and Georgia," he said.
Although Georgia became an independent country after the 1991 Soviet collapse, Russia still maintains military bases there.
Russia is currently removing its troops and equipment from two bases in Georgia and negotiating withdrawal from two more. Equipment from the bases is being shipped through Batumi.
Il-18 planes, which can seat up to 100, first flew in 1957, and production ceased in 1970. The planes were used by the Russian military as submarine hunters and airborne command posts and by the Soviet national airline Aeroflot as passenger planes.