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The tickets are refundable This was the scene in at the Orsk airport, when people learned that an inbound flight from Moscow had crashed, killing everyone on board

Meduza
People at Orsk airport study the list of those who died in the Sunday, February 11, plane crash outside Moscow
People at Orsk airport study the list of those who died in the Sunday, February 11, plane crash outside Moscow
Sergey Nikiforov / TASS / Vida Press

On February 12, a day of mourning was declared in Russia’s Orenburg region for the victims of an An-148 passenger plane operated by Saratov Airlines that crashed outside Moscow a day earlier. Most of the victims were from the flight’s destination: the city of Orsk, where about 200,000 people live today. Meduza presents a special report by Pavel Leshchenko, a correspondent for the website Ural56.ru, from the airport in Orsk, immediately following the news about the crash.

A phone rings and the voice on the other end shouts “Thank God!” instead of the usual “hello.” It’s a friend calling. “Are you home?” the voice asks. “You didn't fly to Moscow? Oh, next week… right. I'm just calling everyone who had plans to go. What do you mean why? Haven’t you heard?!”

My taxi driver cycles through the radio stations. They’re all talking about the same thing: an An-148 Saratov Airlines plane crashed almost immediately after taking off from Domodedovo airport in Moscow.

“A half an hour ago, I was supposed to leave for the [Orsk] airport,” a taxi driver says. “I had a preorder. I pulled into the courtyard, but the client didn’t come out. I waited for a bit and then I called. It turned out that a grandmother ordered the cab. She wanted to go meet her grandson [at the airport]. But now there’s nobody to meet. So the order’s canceled.”

By Sunday evening, four ambulances and a couple of squad cars are parked outside the airport. Inside the small, two-story building, it’s unusually crowded and bustling. A local official runs by. Normally, he never appears in public without a formal suit and tie. Today, he’s in jeans and a sweater. A uniformed police lieutenant is there, too, saluting a colonel wearing his civvies.

Two doctors carry an elderly woman to one of the ambulances. She’s in tears. A man with his head in his hands squats by a wall. Passengers who were supposed to board the plane on a return flight back to Moscow are roaming the terminal in confusion.

At about 5 p.m., local time, the airport’s director, Sergey Sukharev, comes out to make an address. “As you already know,” he says, “a passenger plane en route from Moscow to Orsk crashed near Moscow. There’s no official information about the number of people killed. It’s known that 65 passengers were on board. We’re verifying the list, and we’ll post it here in the concourse when it’s complete. Today’s flight from Orsk to Moscow is canceled. There will be a flight tomorrow at the same time, and today’s tickets will be good for that flight. If you aren't local, we’re offering you a free night’s hotel stay. The cafeteria will be open all night. For locals, there will be buses to take you back into the city. What’s that? Yes, the tickets are refundable.”

A line quickly forms in front of the airline’s booking counter. Later, a list of the passengers aboard the flight from Moscow appears.

The list of names includes Viktor Anokhin, a 67-year-old entrepreneur. He was the director of Orsk’s downtown market. Anokhin was flying home from Moscow with his wife, Zoya, who was the same age. There's also Antonina Kozupitsa, who worked at the federal treasury. She was married to a local politician who currently serves on Orsk’s City Council. Ulyana Son was a singer who recently moved to Moscow and was flying home for a vacation with her parents. Vladimir Normantovich was a top official at the energy company “Orsknefteorgsintez.” His son Alexander, who was also on the flight, worked there, too. There was businessman and philanthropist Ilya Stavsky, who turned 33 on February 11 and was heading home to celebrate. Twenty-two-year-old Daria Tolmasova was engaged to the ice hockey player Sergey Ilin, who plays for Vladivostok’s KHL team “Admiral.” High school student Ilya Poletayev was just seventeen.

A young priest steps up to read the victims’ names. He’s one of a few people who have come to the airport to offer support to the relatives of those killed. “Do you know where I could find out their birthdates?” someone asks. “I found the name of one of my classmates… It’s a common name — maybe it’s a coincidence? I looked at her Vkontakte page, and the last update was six hours ago — it was a photo from Red Square. I wrote her, but she doesn’t answer.” More information comes in. She was on the plane.

The people who had planned to fly to Moscow that day start leaving, but the terminal doesn’t empty. The victims’ friends and families are still arriving. Many are in tears, and doctors try to help them. A colleague gets a text message from the owner of a local cafe. It says, “Tell them that I’ll provide space for a wake, if any one needs it. I can fit 100-150 people. No charge.”

The next day, flowers and candles start appearing in the snow outside the airport and at the feet of the city’s Lenin monument.

A makeshift memorial for the victims of the Moscow plane crash, Orsk, February 12, 2018
A makeshift memorial for the victims of the Moscow plane crash, Orsk, February 12, 2018
Sergey Nikiforov / TASS

February 12 is a day of mourning. The Russian tricolor is lowered to half-mast at administrative buildings throughout the city. All recreational events are canceled, including a children’s hockey tournament and Maslenitsa festivities. The victims’ relatives are asked to give DNA samples at a local hospital, to help identify the remains recovered at the crash site outside Moscow.

At 7:35 p.m., local time, on February 12, a plane takes off from Orsk, bound for Moscow. This time it’s a Yakovlev Yak-42 operated by Izhavia airlines. For now, Izhavia will be handling all Orsk's flights to the capital.

Story by Pavel Leshchenko, translation by Christopher Moldes