- Associated Press - Saturday, January 1, 2011

MOSCOW (AP) — Investigators in Russia say they have found the “black box” recorders from a passenger jet that caught fire and exploded Saturday as it taxied for takeoff in Siberia, killing three people and injuring 43, including six who were badly burned.

The Interstate Aviation Committee, which oversees civil aviation in much of the former Soviet Union, said in a statement Sunday that the data and voice recorders from the Tu-154 had been recovered at the accident site in Surgut.

Most of the passengers and crew were evacuated before the explosion, though people on board described a chaotic scene as as the burning plane filled up with thick, black smoke and panicked passengers rushed 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 flying 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 televsion. 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 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 said all the members of the pop group, which was popular in Russia in the 1990s, got out through an emergency exit over a wing and none of them was hurt.

All three engines on the Tu-154 are located in the back of the aircraft. The fire Saturday 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.

The midrange jet remains, however, the mainstay of smaller airlines across Russia and the former Soviet Union. It is banned from parts of Europe due to excessive engine noise.

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