TUNOSHNA, Russia (WWJ/AP) - A Russian jet carrying top hockey team Lokomotiv Yaroslavl slammed into a riverbank moments after takeoff Wednesday, killing at least 43 people in one of the worst plane crashes ever involving a sports team. Among those killed are former Red Wings Ruslan Salei and Brad McCrimmon.
The Russian Emergency Situations Ministry said the Yak-42 plane crashed immediately after taking off from an airport at 4 p.m. Moscow time near the city of Yaroslavl, about 150 miles northeast of Moscow. The weather was sunny and clear at the time.
The ministry said the plane was carrying 45 people, including 37 passengers and eight crew, adding that all but two people were killed in the crash.
Red Wings Head Coach Mike Babcock has confirmed with WWJ that former Red Wings Assistant Coach McCrimmon was on the flight, and his death has been confirmed by Russian officials. McCrimmon, who was listed as the Lokomotiv’s head coach, played defense for six NHL teams – Boston, Philadelphia, Calgary, Detroit, Hartford and Phoenix – in a 17-year career, appearing in 1,222 regular-season games in the NHL, collecting 81 goals, 322 assists and 1,416 penalty minutes.
A number of NHL alumni were reportedly on board when the plane crashed. A Czech embassy official said Czech players Josef Vasicek, Karel Rachunek and Jan Marek were among those killed. Latvian officials confirmed the death of defenseman Karlis Skrastins and Pavol Demitra’s agent, Matt Keator, confirmed his client was one of the players killed in the crash. Devils GM Lou Lamoriello confirmed that Alexander Vasyunov also died in the crash.
A club spokesman for Lokomotiv has confirmed the entire main roster, plus four players from the youth team, was on the plane.
Officials have confirmed the lone survivors of the crash are Russian player Alexander Galimov and a flight crew member. Galimov is said to be in critical condition, with burns over 80 percent of his body.
Earlier, Wednesday, Mike Babcock and Nick Lidstrom commented on the crash:
AP correspondent Vladimir Isachenkov said the hockey team was on its way to a season-opening game when it crashed.
“The hockey team called Lokomotiv from the city of Yaroslavl, along the Volga River, was heading to Belarus where it was to play tomorrow against Dinamo Minsk in the opening game of the season of the Kontinental Hockey League,” said Isachenkov.
Swarms of police and rescue crews rushed to Tunoshna, a picturesque village with a blue-domed church on the banks of the Volga River. One of the plane’s engines could be seen poking out of the river and a flotilla of boats combed the water for bodies. Russian rescue workers struggled to heft the bodies of large, strong athletes in stretchers up the muddy, steep riverbank.
One resident, Irina Prakhova, saw the plane going down, hearing a loud bang and then seeing a plume of smoke.
“It was wobbling in flight, it was clear that something was wrong,” she said. “I saw them pulling bodies to the shore, some still in their seats with seatbelts on.”
The KHL is an international club league that pits together teams from Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Latvia and Slovakia. Lokomotiv Yaroslavl is a leading force in Russian hockey and came third in the KHL last year. The Lokomotiv club was a three-time Russian League champion in 1997, 2002 and 2003 and took the bronze last season.
In recent years, Russia and the other former Soviet republics have had some of the world’s worst air traffic safety records. Experts blame the poor safety record on the age of the aircraft, weak government controls, poor pilot training and a cost-cutting mentality.
The plane that crashed was relatively new, built in 1993, and belonged to a small Yak Service company.
Isachenkov said an investigation into the crash is already underway.
“Prime Minister Vladimir Putin sent the nation’s transport minister to the crash site and other top officials are also headed there. It’s not immediately clear what caused the crash,” said Isachenkov.
President Dmitry Medvedev has announced plans to take aging Soviet-built planes out of service starting next year. The short- and medium-range Yak-42 has been in service since 1980 and about 100 are still in service with Russian carriers.
Wednesday’s crash was one of the worst crashes ever involving a sports team.
In other plane crashes involving sports teams, 30 members of the Uruguayan rugby club Old Christians were killed in a crash in the Andes in 1972. The entire 18-member U.S. figure skating team died in a crash on their way to the 1961 world championships in Brussels. In 1949, the Torino soccer team lost 18 players near Turin, while the Munich air crash of 1958 cost eight Manchester United players their lives.
WWJ Reporters are currently trying to confirm who was on board. Stay with WWJ and CBSDetroit.com for the latest.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.