‘Everyone’s trying to believe that their friends and relatives are still alive’ How passengers’ relatives coped in the hours following Sunday’s catastrophic airplane fire in Moscow
On the evening of May 5, a Sukhoi Superjet 100 airplane bound for Murmansk from Moscow turned back and made an emergency landing: the plane, owned by the Russian airline Aeroflot, had lost its radio connection. A fire soon broke out on board, though its cause has yet to be determined: some have suggested that a lightning strike sparked the fire while the plane was still in the air, while others suspect that the fire was triggered by landing gear components that flew into the engine during an unsuccessful landing. 78 people were on board the flight. Russia’s Health Ministry announced that 38 survived; the country’s Investigative Committee put that number at 37. Meduza special correspondent Kristina Safonova spent the night in Sheremetyevo with the passengers’ relatives. Some of them waited several hours for news about their loved ones but ultimately received the information they needed only from the media.
Two young women, both wearing red uniforms that mark them as Aeroflot flight attendants, stand near Sheremetyevo airport’s Terminal D as taxis come and go nearby. They are both silent until one of them shows the other a video on her phone. They both begin to cry.
Less than four hours have passed since flight SU 1492 from Moscow to Murmansk caught on fire. Emergency operations at the landing site have ended, but almost nothing is known about the fates of the passengers. At first, Russia’s Investigative Committee announced that 13 people, including two children, had died, and 11 people had been injured. A criminal case was opened to investigate the circumstances of the emergency landing.
The airport itself is bustling with people, but few of them have heard about what happened. Only one runway is operational, so most flights are delayed, and incoming flights are being redirected to Moscow’s Domodedovo airport or to other airports in Nizhny Novgorod and St. Petersburg. Around 200 people whose flights have been delayed or canceled are standing in line to reach Aeroflot’s customer service desk, and the strongest emotion they express is frustration.
“My flight was supposed to leave [today] at 9:00 PM, but now it’s estimated for tomorrow at 7:00 in the morning,” says a man named Dmitry. “In this case, I’m taking heavy losses. I have a connecting flight in China, and it wasn’t cheap: from Beijing to Haikou. When I bought the ticket, it cost around $1,000. Now it’s around $1,500. It’s my understanding that when an airline is responsible for such a thing, it should compensate for those losses or at least call another airline, given that they are partners, and ask to transfer the flight. All I was offered was a hotel room. I’m not afraid to fly.”
In Terminal B, a temporary psychological support center has been set up for the relatives of those killed and injured. Those who approach the information booth outside are asked to step behind a white screen. Journalists are not permitted to see anything more: police officers and airport security employees block their way. Many other passengers are gathered here too, but their eyes are directed above the door, toward the electronic table of arrivals and departures. Most of them do not know about the fire. At a bar located directly across from the support center, young people drink and laugh together.
Every once in a while, relatives of the accident’s victims emerge from behind the screen to make phone calls or smoke. They say there are around 20 people in the psychological support center. “We don’t know anything about our loved ones. You can’t imagine what it’s like. I’m looking for my sister. They’re not saying anything,” one young woman tells me. She asks to remain anonymous. “I’m looking for my husband. No one knows what happened to him,” another young woman tells the journalists gathered outside the center.
Ivan (whose name has been changed at his request), like the other family members who are waiting in the airport, doesn’t know anything about the fate of his 35-year-old brother. “I left work as fast as I could. I saw it in the news, but I didn’t know any details. He’s an engineer, and he was flying [to Murmansk] for work. He doesn’t live in Moscow or Murmansk — I don’t want to say which city. We didn’t see each other often. What reason did we have to get together? Each of us had his own life; we’re adults already. We talked a lot for a time, and since then, it’s just been everyday stuff. We talked on the phone not long ago, maybe three days. We live far away from each other, but each of us tends to know how the other is doing. Nothing really changes, so why call every day?” During our conversation, Ivan’s telephone rings. He covers his eyes with his hand, shaking. He has learned that his parents do not yet know what happened. Ivan returns to the support center.
At 11:30 PM, the Investigative Committee announces that 37 passengers have survived, and the Health Ministry says there are 38. This means there are certainly more than 13 people dead. By now, though, that’s no secret to many people in the airport. Passengers whose flights have been delayed are passing around rumors that at least 30 people have died; someone has written as much on social media.
Yekaterina finds out about the Investigative Committee’s and the Health Ministry’s official announcements from reporters. She came here to support her friend, whose husband was onboard the Aeroflot flight. “So far, there’s no information at all. It’s surprising to me that they’re holding back the lists for so long. They keep delaying it by half an hour to deliberate. As far as I know, around 18 people are already in the hospital,” she tells the journalists. “The feeling of uncertainty is a heavy weight, but we have faith. Everyone’s trying to believe that their friends and relatives are still alive. We aren’t getting any news ourselves — everything we’re finding out is coming from the Internet. The process of waiting and expecting is one of the hardest things. At least [they could give us] some kind of information, at least in pieces.”
Lists of survivors and of those who have been hospitalized appear at almost1:00 at night, but the victims’ relatives stay where they are in the psychological support center behind the screen. Around 2:00, Ivan, who was waiting to hear about his brother, leaves the center with his things and walks toward the exit. Before he reaches the doors, he stops and stands for a bit in silence. He asks me where he can get a drink and returns to the bar across from the center. He wants to call a taxi, but the Yandex.Taxi employee manning an information booth at the exit tells him that the ride hailing service is temporarily unavailable. Ivan manages to order a cab through the service’s app anyway after several tries. (After this article was released, Yandex.Taxi’s press service clarified that the booth in question monitors a drop-off and pickup site directly outside the terminal that was reserved at the time for emergency vehicles.) Others begin leaving the center as well, and police help them along. They have to wait longer for a taxi than Ivan did — around 40 minutes.
Ivan says that in the entire time he spent in Sheremetyevo, which was about five hours, no detailed information about any of the passengers was made available to him. “All of [the relatives] were on their phones, and nobody knew anything. Everyone came to the same conclusion — there’s no point in just waiting somewhere. We left our contact information, and [the center’s employees] said they would reach out right away as soon as they knew. It’s a classic situation; God forbid anyone else falls into it. Of course, I’m hoping… Our parents still don’t know. They just have to sleep a bit. They wouldn’t be able to fall asleep.”
Translation by Hilah Kohen