YAROSLAVL, Russia -- They came by the tens of thousands to mourn, from world leaders to ice hockey stars to ordinary Russians, with flowers and tears and aching hearts.
An estimated 100,000 people flocked to a memorial ceremony Saturday in the western city of Yaroslavl for the victims of the Russian plane crash that devastated a top ice hockey team.
"For the first time in my life, I had trouble entering an ice arena," Vyacheslav Fetisov, a former NHL star who is chairman of the Kontinental Hockey League, said at the ceremony. "It's an inexplicable tragedy."
Mourners including Prime Minister Vladimir Putin poured into the team's arena to lay flowers near coffins containing remains of players and staff of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team. Many were draped in the team's red, white and blue colours.
Wednesday's crash of a chartered Yak-42 jet killed 43 people and was one of the sports world's worst aviation disasters. Of the 45 people on board, 36 were Lokomotiv players, coaches and team officials, including many European and former NHL players.
The crash shocked Russia and the entire hockey community but emotions were especially raw in Yaroslavl, where the team's consistently strong performance in the Kontinental Hockey League was a source of great pride. The team had been heading to Minsk, Belarus, to play its opening game of the KHL season.
"It's hard for me to talk because I loved the team so much," said Slovakian national hockey team coach Vladimir Vujtek, who had previously coached Lokomotiv.
The sombre-faced Putin walked slowly across the arena, laying flowers at each of the coffins, and several KHL ice hockey squads travelled en masse to Yaroslavl to attend the ceremony.
President Dmitry Medvedev visited the crash site a day after the disaster, but didn't attend Saturday's ceremony. Many fans had criticized Medvedev for using the arena for an international conference this week, a move that forced the team to fly out of town in the first place.
Fetisov on Saturday renewed a KHL pledge to help rebuild the Lokomotiv team. KHL chief Alexander Medvedev said earlier this week that each team in the league should volunteer up to three players for a new Lokomotiv squad. He said some 35 players had already volunteered.
Two men who survived the crash -- player Alexander Galimov and crew member Alexander Sizov -- remained in critical condition Saturday, both in medicated comas in Moscow. Hospital officials said Galimov had burns over 90 per cent of his body.
Russian crash investigators deciphering the plane's flight data recorders say all the plane's three engines were operating up until the moment it crashed into the Volga River bank shortly after takeoff. The experts have come to no conclusions yet about the cause of the crash.
Authorities checked fuel supplies at the Tunoshna airport, but Russia's top aviation authority said Saturday the data recorders gave no indication that bad fuel was the cause.
Aviation authorities also launched safety checks on all the approximately 60 Yak-42 jets still in service in Russia.
The Rostransnadzor transport safety watchdog on Saturday grounded another Yak-42 jet belonging to the owner of the crashed plane, the Moscow-based Yak Service. The agency said the jet that was to fly Saturday from Izmir, Turkey, to Moscow had an engine component with an expired lifetime service card, posing a threat to flight safety.
The crashed jet was built in 1993 and one of its three engines was replaced a month ago.
Rostransnadzor earlier this week grounded three of another six Yak-42s it had checked due to unspecified flaws.
Experts blame Russia's poor aviation safety record on an aging fleet, weak government controls, poor pilot training and a cost-cutting mentality.
9/10/2011 9:58:16 AM