MOSCOW - Aviation officials here angrily defended the crew of the Russian jetliner that collided with a cargo plane over Europe's Lake Constance, saying yesterday that Swiss air traffic controllers were too quick to accuse the pilot of failing to take evasive action.
The Swiss said the pilot of the Russian passenger plane, carrying 52 children, five adult escorts and 12 crew members, was slow to respond when ordered to descend.
Passengers on the Russian plane included eight children younger than 12, and 44 between ages 12 and 16. They were heading for a vacation on a Spanish beach, and many came from the families of government officials in the Russian republic of Bashkortostan, a Muslim region in the southern Ural Mountains about 800 miles east of Moscow. All were students at a UNESCO-affiliated school in the capital, Ufa.
Grief-stricken relatives gathered at the airport in Ufa yesterday, trying to make arrangements to fly to Germany. "If only they had flown on time, nothing would have happened," said the tearful mother of an 11-year-old boy, interviewed by NTV television. The flight had been delayed after a missed connection.
Some relatives were expected to arrive in Germany today. But several feared they would be forced to wait until next week, the Russian media reported, because they don't have international passports or the necessary visas.
The two planes struck each other 36,000 feet in the air shortly before midnight Monday, as the pilots scrambled to avert a collision in the final seconds of their flights.
The crash ignited fireballs that rained down on farmland and vacation homes along the shores of Lake Constance, bordered by Austria, Germany and Switzerland. The crash killed 71 people, including the two pilots on board the cargo plane.
Anton Maag, the chief of the Zurich Area Control Center, told the British Broadcasting Corp. late yesterday that the Bashkirian Airlines charter flight was warned to descend "two or three times" before its crew responded. But he also estimated that the Russian pilot was first told to change altitude only about 45 seconds before the crash - not the two minutes that another Swiss official said earlier yesterday.
The Swiss account of the accident changed after the German air safety agency said the Russian pilot was given only about 50 seconds to descend and that he reacted after the second warning - about 25 seconds before the crash.
Sepp Moser, a Swiss aviation expert, said on Swiss television that the actions of air traffic control, as well as those of the Russian crew, should be investigated. "I think that the behavior of Swiss air traffic authorities should be examined on a second-by-second basis," he said.
He said the cargo jet's automated collision-avoidance system, which ordered the pilot to descend into the Russian plane's path, might also have been at fault.
Airline and Russian aviation officials, meanwhile, were furious with early claims that the Russian crew was at fault. What the Swiss air traffic controllers claimed, said Gennady Pirogov, deputy director of Bashkirian, "cannot be taken as fact."
The children were supposed to fly to Barcelona from Moscow on Saturday, on their way to the resort town of Costa Dorada. But they missed their connection. So Bashkirian Airlines organized a charter flight, which left Monday from Moscow's Domodedovo Airport.
The failure of the Russian pilot, 52-year-old Alexander Gross, to respond to the initial warnings led to speculation that the Russian crew had a poor command of English, the international language of air traffic control. Pirogov denied that. "The fact is that he had been flying international flights for 10 years," he said. "He not only could understand the commands in English, but could speak fluently."
Pirogov said the airline has a good safety record. Although based on a 26-year-old design, the Tupolev 154 aircraft that crashed yesterday was built in 1995. It was equipped, the company said, with the latest in safety and communications gear.
The three-engine Tu-154 is considered the plowhorse of Russian aviation. Soviet engineers copied its design from that of the Boeing 727 but strengthened the frame to withstand the shock of landing on Russia's potholed airfields. Construction began in 1971. Of 923 built, about 530 were still in active service in Russia last year.
The aircraft design has a checkered safety record, experts say, but not because of a high rate of mechanical problems. Many regional airlines here charge rock-bottom fares and sometimes scrimp on maintenance and operating costs. A year ago, a Tu-154 crashed in Siberia, killing all 144 aboard. Investigators later blamed the accident on the pilot, who put it into a sharp descent in order to save $280 worth of fuel.
Gross, the Tupolev pilot, had previously flown routes in Africa, Asia and Europe. He worked for Aeroflot until 1991, when Bashkirian took over some of the state-owned carrier's domestic routes.
The Russian jet struck a Boeing 757 operated by the DHL package delivery company, on its way from Bahrain to Brussels, Belgium, site of one of the company's headquarters. The cargo plane's British pilot, Paul Phillips, put his aircraft into a dive seconds before the collision, in response to an alert from his craft's collision-avoidance system.
But in trying to avoid each other, the two aircraft hit.
Some Russian government officials said negligent air-traffic controllers might be to blame, but Bashkirian officials were neutral. "We cannot speculate about that," Pirogov said. "The fact is we don't have enough information to draw any conclusions."
In recent months, European air-traffic controllers have resisted the merger of air-traffic-control systems across the crowded skies of the continent. Pilots say switching from one country's system to another can be confusing.
In Ufa, the government building was turned into a crisis center for victims' families, who were filling out visa and passport applications so they could travel to Germany.
"They just want to see the place where [their children] spent their last moments," said Khalyaf Ishmuratov, Bashkortostan's deputy prime minister.
The two-week trip to Spain had been supported by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, and was to have included visits to schools as well as a stay at the beach.
Now, Ishmuratov is organizing the charter of another Tu-154. This one will take relatives to the crash site, accompanied by four psychologists, two doctors and two translators.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.