YAROSLAVL, Russia (AP) — President Dmitry Medvedev called Thursday for fast changes in Russia's troubled air transport industry — including sharply reducing the number of airlines — as the country mourned a crash that killed 43 people, among them most of a top hockey team.
The Wednesday crash, which killed 36 players, coaches and staff of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team, drew new attention to the poor safety air records of Russia and some other former Soviet republics. Experts blame the age of the aircraft, weak government controls, poor pilot training and a cost-cutting mentality.
Investigators could not immediately pinpoint the cause of the crash of the Yak-42 jet onto the banks of the Volga River shortly after takeoff from Yaroslavl, 150 miles (240 kilometers) northeast of Moscow. Workers labored Thursday to raise the plane's shattered tail section, where one of the plane's on-board recorders is, Russian news agencies quoted Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu as saying.
The plane crashed on the opening day of an international forum in Yaroslavl that was to showcase the city as a modern and vibrant city. Medvedev lay flowers at the crash site and met with officials including Transport Minister Igor Levitin, and was speaking later Thursday.
"The number of air companies should be radically reduced and it's necessary to do this within the shortest time," Medvedev said in comments at the meeting broadcast on Russian television.
It was not immediately clear what measures the government could take to cut the number of air carriers, many of which are small, regional operations of uncertain financial health. Levitin told Medvedev that there are about 130 air carriers throughout Russia, but that 85 percent of passengers are carried by just 10 companies.
On Thursday morning, hundreds of local residents gathered at the city's Russian Orthodox cathedral to mourn the victims. Many of them wore team scarves, some of the women using them to cover their heads as church ritual requires.
The crashed jet was built in 1993 and one of its three engines was replaced a month ago, Deputy Transport Minister Valery Okulov told Russian media on Thursday. It is unclear whether technical failure played a role in the crash, but the plane apparently struggled to gain altitude and then hit a signal tower before breaking apart along the Volga.
Okulov said federal transportation authorities are considering whether to halt flights by Yak-42s, Okulov was quoted as saying by the state news agency RIA Novosti. There are 57 of the planes in service in Russia, the agency said.
There were only two crash survivors and both were reported as being in serious condition on Thursday.
Among the dead were Lokomotiv coach and NHL veteran Brad McCrimmon, a Canadian; assistant coach Alexander Karpovtsev, one of the first Russians to have his name etched on the Stanley Cup as a member of the New York Rangers; and Pavol Demitra, who played for the St. Louis Blues and the Vancouver Canucks and was the Slovakian national team captain.
Other standouts killed were Czech players Josef Vasicek, Karel Rachunek and Jan Marek, Swedish goalie Stefan Liv, Latvian defenseman Karlis Skrastins and defenseman Ruslan Salei of Belarus.
Medvedev previously has announced plans to take aging Soviet-built planes out of service starting next year. The short- and medium-range Yak-42 has been in service since 1980 and about 100 are still being used by Russian carriers.
The crash is one of the worst aviation disasters in sports history.
In past plane crashes involving sports teams, 75 Marshall University football players, coaches, fans and airplane crew died in West Virginia on Nov. 14, 1970, while returning from a game. Thirty-six of the dead were players.
Thirty members of a Uruguayan rugby club were killed in a crash in the Andes in 1972.
The entire 18-member U.S. figure skating team died in a crash on their way to the 1961 world championships in Prague, and 18 members of the Torino soccer team died near Turin, Italy, in a 1949 crash.
In 1980, 14 members of the U.S. amateur boxing team were killed in a crash in Warsaw, Poland.
A plane crash in 1950 near the Russian city of Sverdlovsk, now called Yekaterinburg, killed 13 players and officials in the Soviet air force's ice hockey squad. A Munich air crash in 1958 cost eight Manchester United players their lives.
Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this story.
(This version corrects that 1961 crash was while en route to Prague, not Brussels.)