Three dead as plane catches fire while taxiing

At least three people have been killed and over 40 injured after a Russian regional airliner caught fire and exploded at an airport in the eastern Siberian city of Surgut.

­The Tupolev-154 was being used on Kolavia Airlines flight 348 bound for Moscow. The airliner was taxiing prior to take-off when a fire started on board. It is not yet clear what exactly caused the blaze, but according to some reports one of the turbines caught fire, perhaps due to a foreign object entering it. Eventually, one of the fuel tanks exploded.

There were over a hundred passengers on board the plane, including members of one of Russia’s most famous pop-groups, “Na-Na”, plus eight crew members. According to passengers, black smoke first filled the cabin and sparks were in the air while people were literally climbing over the heads of one another, in order to get out.

“We were able to escape through only one exit. So everyone was crowding on the wing. There were stairs, but some fell down and limped away,” one of the passengers later said.

Some passengers reportedly ran through flames to escape, leaving them with severe burns.

The passengers and the crew were evacuated before the blast. The plane was completely destroyed in the explosion.

Injured passengers and those who suffered from smoke inhalation have been hospitalized. One of the injured remains in a serious condition, while eight others are listed as being moderately severe. The state of other 21 affected passengers is “satisfactory”, Interfax news agency has quoted the Emergencies Ministry as saying.

Of those who died, at least one person – a 52-year-old woman – most likely succumbed to severe burns. The families of those who died will receive nearly 70 thousand dollars in compensation.

Investigators have recovered the plane's flight data recorders. A criminal case has been launched over suspected negligence and violation of safety procedures – the preliminary suspected causes.

The Tupolev-154 is Russia's most successful ever plane with around a thousand of them produced since 1968.

The three-engine medium range passenger plane is still one of the main work-horses of Russia's domestic aviation. It reaches speeds of over 900 kilometers per hour and is among the fastest in its class.

Despite being criticized for its safety record, aviation experts say all fatal incidents are usually not due to faults with the aircraft's design.

This is the second crash of Tu-154 in less than a month. The previous incident happened in December in Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport, when a Dagestan Airlines plane suffered engine failure en-route to the southern Russian republic. Two died and more than 80 were hurt when the plane skidded off the runway and broke up. Pilot error is being investigated as a possible cause.

Another recent tragedy involving the Tu-154 happened in April 2010 with an airplane carrying Polish president Lech Kachinsky onboard.

However, several modifications of the Tu-154 exist. The one that was carrying the Polish president was one of the newest models, and the plane itself was relatively new. The airliner involved in the Surgut accident was among the oldest.

Meanwhile, Rostransnadzor – the Federal body responsible for security-related issues on public transport – has instructed all airlines operating the old modification of the Tu-154 from the 1970s, called the Tu-154B, to ground these planes. Fifteen are still in service throughout Russia. The ban for this model aircraft will remain in place until the circumstances around the Surgut incident are investigated.