Early Saturday, a Russian commercial airliner on route to Russia from Egypt crashed in the northern region of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. There were no survivors among the 217 passengers and seven crew members onboard.
When it disappeared from radar, Metrojet Flight 9268 had only been in the air for 23 minutes after departing the Red Sea resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh at 6 a.m. bound for St. Petersburg and carrying mostly Russian tourists. More than 20 children — at least one was less than a year old — were reportedly among those killed in the deadliest disaster in Russian aviation history.
Investigators have not named an exact reason for the plane’s tragic end, but they have ruled out a few things. On Monday, a Metrojet official said, “We rule out a technical fault of the plane or a pilot error. The only possible explanation could be an external impact on the airplane.” Alexander Neradko, head of the Russian Federal Aviation Agency, disagreed with this conclusion, saying that it was too soon to reach any conclusions from the few pieces of debris studied by investigators. The plane’s black box was located and is reportedly in decent enough condition to extract data from.
Reuters talked to one person who has examined the plane’s black box data; they said that it seemed unlikely that the plane was struck from the outside.
The plane disintegrated midair. The pieces of the plane scattered over a large swath of land, and the tail ended up far away from the rest of the fuselage. No one on the plane reported a problem or called for assistance before the crash.
Terrorism has also been whispered as a possible reason for the disaster; the crash site is roughly 44 miles south of the Egyptian city of el-Arish, an area where the Egyptian government has been fighting a jihadist insurgency. Though militants allied with ISIS later tried to take credit for bringing down the plane, that claim has been roundly dismissed by Egyptian and Russian authorities. Egyptian authorities insist that militants in the region don’t have the weaponry needed to bring down an airliner at the high altitude the plane was traveling.
Nonetheless, several airlines have now temporarily rerouted their flights to avoid passing over the Sinai Peninsula, just to be safe. On Monday, National Intelligence Director James Clapper, speaking to reporters in D.C. about the crash, said that terrorism was “unlikely, but I wouldn’t rule it out.”
In Russia, the wife of one of the co-pilots has also said that her husband had complained abut the condition of the aircraft, which was one of the oldest of its kind still operating, over the phone prior to departing Sharm el-Sheikh, though the plane was apparently cleared by safety inspectors before the flight, and the planes engines had been checked on October 26. Russian aviation officials have nonetheless ordered Metrojet to ground and reinspect its other Airbus A321 planes; it is not clear if Metrojet is complying with the order. The Washington Post reports that Kogalymavia, the airline responsible for the plane, has been suffering from massive financial difficulties and has not paid its employees in a few months.
At least 196 bodies have been recovered from the scene and many are now being flown back to Russia, where officials have collected DNA samples from passengers’ relatives to help with identifying the dead. The Russian flag is flying at half-staff throughout the country.
Russian president Vladimir Putin has already ordered a state commission to study the cause of the crash, and Russia has dispatched a team of investigators to the scene. Putin has also declared Sunday a national day of mourning in Russia for the victims of the crash, which is the worst air disaster in the country’s history. With the exception of four Ukrainians and one Belarusian, everyone on the flight was Russian, including many families. Aviation officials from Airbus, as well as France, where Airbus is headquartered, have also been sent to Egypt to investigate.
According to the New York Times and the AP, in the first half of 2015, Egypt and its southern Sinai beaches were the single most popular foreign destination for Russian tourists, and some 3 million or so Russian tourists visited the country in 2014, making up a third of all visitors to the country that year. Aside from the southern resorts, large swaths of the Sinai Peninsula are a contested military zone where jihadist insurgent groups have been fighting the Egyptian government for years.
This post has been updated throughout to reflect new developments in the story.