All 71 people aboard the two aircraft died in the accident. “The [collision warning] system was not working at the time,” said Roger Gaberelle, a spokesman for Skyguide, the Swiss officials responsible for the area where the crash occurred.
Skyguide also said one of the two controllers on duty during the accident had left the tower for a break during the maintenance operation on the warning system.
The admissions come as investigators probed why the jets rammed into each other some 35,000 feet above a German resort area on Lake Constance, near the Switzerland border. The collision between the Russian Tupolev jet with 69 people aboard and a Boeing 757 cargo jet being operated by the international delivery company DHL left the area strewn with bodies and burning debris.
Although initial reports said Swiss controllers warned the Russian jet two minutes before the accident to descend to a lower altitude, Skyguide now says the first warning came some 50 seconds before the crash.
After the controllers issued another warning, the Russian jet began to descend some 25 seconds before the accident.
According to “The New York Times”, the chief of tower at the Zurich airport defended the controllers, saying the one-minute warning “was not irresponsible,” but that it was “fairly tight.”
Officials agree that even with the short warning, the Tupolev’s descent could have prevented the accident had the DHL’s collision alarm not sounded, prompting the 757 to also dive lower.
The head of the Russian Bashkirian Airlines blamed the Swiss controllers for the accident and discounted whether the pilots could have done anything to prevent the accident.
“My theory is that this is the fault of the air traffic controllers who brought the two airplanes together in midair,” said general director of the airline Nikolai Odegov at a news conference in Ufa, the hometown of many of the Russian victims. “There are no grounds at the moment to suggest that the crew lost control of the aircraft.”
Some 45 children from the Russian region of Bashkortostan were aboard the plane, en route to Spain for a UN-sponsored holiday for students. The number of children, although lower than the original 52 reported Tuesday, has left the Russian public stunned.
Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov described the collision as a “terrible tragedy.”
“The scope of this tragedy is beyond understanding,” he told reporters yesterday after a meeting in France.
In Germany, investigators and emergency crews focused on recovering the bodies of the victims, many of whom remained strapped in their seats amid the wreckage.
“It is now our most important task to recover the bodies,” Thomas Schaeuble, the interior minister of the local state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, told a news conference. “We hope to be able to complete the recovery of bodies tomorrow.”
Investigators from Germany’s aviation authority were to begin analyzing information Wednesday from the planes’ flight data recorders and cockpit voice recorders.