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‘I was the last one walking out. There was no one behind me.’ Aeroflot passenger Oleg Molchanov describes his escape from the burning jet at Sheremetyevo

Source: Meduza
Oleg Molchanov / YouTube

On May 5, a Sukhoi Superjet 100 owned by the Russian airline Aeroflot caught fire at Sheremetyevo airport. The airplane, which was bound for Murmansk, made an emergency landing at its departure point soon after takeoff. 41 people died in the fire out of the 78 people onboard the flight. Meduza spoke with 35-year-old Murmansk entrepreneur Oleg Molchanov, who survived the fire along with his wife.

My wife and I were on our way back to Murmansk after a vacation. We were sitting in the 12th row, and I was ‘on the wing,’ so to speak, right by the window. From there, I had a very clear view of the lightning bolt that hit us after we flew into a cloud: little waves of electric light were running along the wings. The flight attendant saw them too and immediately told the captain. We were told that the plane was returning to the airport for technical reasons. Nobody explained what was going on in detail, and there were no more announcements after that.

After the lightning strike, the plane didn’t shake — it descended smoothly. There was no panic at all until the initial impact when we landed. It was surprising: I was expecting a very strong hit, but it turned out to be bearable. None of us were wounded, but the women immediately started screaming almost at the frequency of an ultrasound. Some people from the back rows ran forward — they were able to do that because of the relatively light impact. That’s how a man from the 18th row was able to save himself (he is currently hospitalized — Meduza).

My wife and I stayed in our seats after the impact. She tried to stand up and run, but I told her to sit down because I expected the panic to trigger a stampede. I saw how the sheathing was destroyed while the plane was bouncing, how the fire started. The fire got inside the plane right away, and it spread instantaneously.

When the plane stopped, I pushed my wife forward. There was no time to deliberate: the window was melting in front of my eyes. I was the last one walking out. There was no one behind me. I crawled on my hands and knees for a few rows. Then I realized that I was losing consciousness, so I lay down on the floor and crawled to the area between the cockpit and business class. The path was clear. At that point, I lost sight of my wife, so I sat up with my back to the cockpit and started looking for her. There was a flight attendant and a young man next to me. I can’t say who he was — he might have been a flight attendant (flight attendant Maxim Moiseyev was killed in the fire — Meduza). Then, other passengers’ hands started reaching out of the smoke. We pulled out three people together: two men and a woman.

When we pulled out the third person, there was a flash in the cabin. I asked the young man for a gas mask so that I could stay in the plane. He tried to get into the cockpit, but it was locked. I looked back at the aisle and saw someone’s behind. Then, the female flight attendant said we had to get out, so we got out. I don’t know where the young man went — maybe to another exit.

The video Oleg Molchanov took at the site of the fire
Oleg Molchanov

I can’t say anything about the suitcases everyone’s talking about (initial news reports indicated that some passengers slowed evacuation by retrieving their carry-on bags — Meduza). They definitely didn’t get in my way: I was the last one walking out, and there was no one behind me. I can’t tell you how long we waited for the aisle to clear. Time is subjective, so I can’t say exactly. But I wouldn’t say anything slowed down the evacuation. There was just one moment — a woman started running forward and fell, but they carried her out. There was no crush of people on the airplane.

I think there were so many victims because the fire hit at the back end of the plane. The rear exit didn’t open, and on a purely logical level, people were preparing to run out through the exit nearest to them. I think the passengers back there didn’t have a shot at making it. They suffocated on carbon monoxide; there was spilled kerosene everywhere. Only the people who ran forward right away were able to get out. There was no one left to save from behind.

My wife and I ended up spending around two more hours on the runway after we got out of the plane. We tried to help evacuate other passengers, and then the doctors took care of us. The thing is that we didn’t get any serious injuries: just light burns on our corneas and skin abrasions. So we decided not to be hospitalized, but they asked us to write a formal refusal. By the time we were done, the rest of the passengers had already been taken to the airport. Understandably, everyone was extremely busy by that point, and we had to wait a long time for the next shuttle. We spent that whole time in a car with the doctors. Then, an investigator questioned us, asked us what we remembered.

We were given food and a hotel room, and the next morning, we flew out to Murmansk. All in all, I think everyone serving there did a good job even if they didn’t really work in concert with one another. The flight attendants stretched the bounds of possibility to get people out. The doctors helped everybody, and so did the first responders. In that respect, everything was fine.

I’m following the investigation, but I don’t trust our media. Most of them are going to write what they’re told. I’m no expert, and I can’t say what led to the emergency landing, but I think they’ll blame the pilots in any case. If it’s they’re fault, everything makes sense, and if it’s not, they’ll pin it on them anyway. No one’s about to cancel the Superjet project, after all.

Recorded by Pavel Merzlikin

Translation by Hilah Kohen