YAROSLAVL, Russia (Reuters) - President Dmitry Medvedev demanded a rapid reduction in the number of domestic airlines on Thursday and said Russia may have to buy foreign aircraft to improve safety after a plane crash killed 43 people, including an ice hockey team.
“The government has to take a very tough decision. We cannot go on like this,” he said as he inspected the wreckage of the Yak-42 passenger plane which slammed into a river bank near the city of Yaroslavl on Wednesday.
Acknowledging there were “big problems” with Russia’s safety record, Medvedev said: “The number of air companies must be radically reduced and we need to do it very quickly.”
Looking sombre in a black suit after arriving from Moscow with the transport and emergencies ministers, Medvedev said the government should help revive the civil aviation fleet and improve training and pay for flight crews.
“The cost of human life is greater than any other concerns, including support for national producers,” he said after laying flowers at the charred wreckage of the plane, which had been carrying the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl ice hockey team.
“We must support our own people. If we are unable to sort it out, we must buy foreign aircraft. I am giving the government an order and they will have to find the money. It will be a big programme.”
Medvedev did not give details. His remarks could herald a shake-up of Russian aviation with the aim of improving a safety record widely regarded in Russia and abroad as dire.
Many private air companies have been formed in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 but many rely heavily on Soviet-era fleets. Medvedev acknowledged that previous efforts to improve safety had been unsuccessful.
He visited the scene of the crash in a quiet village by the River Volga before attending a political conference, as planned, in nearby Yaroslavl, about 250 km (150 miles) north of Moscow.
The global policy forum was taking place in the stadium where Lokomotiv play, and which has temporarily become a shrine to the successful and popular team.
Many fans flocked to the stadium soon after the crash and left team scarves and flowers beside the stadium wall. Candles flickered and some fans wept. Others chanted the names of the players.
“Tears on the ice,” Russia’s popular Tvoi Den newspaper said on its front page under a picture of the squad on the ice. “Yet another terrible air crash has shaken Russia,” it said.
Only one of the 37 players and team officials on board survived, reviving memories of a plane crash in 1958 which killed many of English soccer club Manchester United’s players.
“Lokomotiv fans are grieving, the whole country is grieving,” Medvedev said.
International Ice Hockey Federation President Rene Fasel sent his condolences from the global ice hockey community and Russia’s Kommersant-FM radio station said players from other hockey teams were offering to help rebuild the team.
Emergency workers quoted by Russian news agencies said they were still searching the waters of the Volga River where the plane crashed.
Two people survived but were in a grave condition.
The one player who survived was offenceman Alexander Galimov, who hospital doctors said had burns over 90 percent of his body. The other survivor was one of the eight crew.
Lokomotiv’s squad includes players and coaches from several countries, among them Czech Republic, Slovakia, Sweden, Germany and Canada.
Witnesses including fishermen on the Volga River said they heard loud bangs as the plane crashed into the ground, bursting into flames, soon after take off.
Russian investigators said they believed the crash was caused either by faulty equipment or pilot error, although weather conditions were excellent. The team had been on its way to a match in Minsk, the capital of Belarus.
Additional reporting by Maria Tsvetkova, writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Janet Lawrence