Oct 23, 2014 1:03 PM

Report: Total CEO's plane almost escaped crash

The Associated Press

MOSCOW (AP) The plane carrying a top French oil executive and a crew of three was already in the air when it grazed a snowplow, just failing to avoid the fatal crash, Russian crash investigators said Thursday.

Monday night's collision that killed Total SA CEO Christophe de Margerie and all the crew on his jet has been seen not only as a tragedy but as an embarrassment for Russia at a time of strained relations with the West.

The director general of Moscow's Vnukovo Airport and his deputy resigned Thursday and investigators detained four more of its employees in addition to the snowplow's driver.

Alexei Morozov, head of investigations at the Moscow-based Interstate Aviation Committee, told reporters Thursday that the snowplow had driven without permission into a junction of two runways at Vnukovo Airport seconds before the crash while the plane was already accelerating on the runway.

"The runway was clear when a traffic controller gave permission for takeoff," Morozov said, adding there was no communications between the control tower and the plane's crew after that moment.

Fourteen seconds after starting to take off in a deep fog, the plane crew saw one vehicle crossing the runway, he said. Then 14 more seconds later, the pilots only saw the snowplow immediately before the collision and hit it while the jet was already in the air, he said.

Morozov said all the plane's systems were working fine and his information came from studying the plane's flight and cockpit conversation recorders.

The airport chiefs' resignation and the four new detentions indicated that responsibility for Monday night's crash was being widened well beyond the 60-year old driver of the snowplow, Vladimir Martynenko.

Martynenko said in remarks carried by Russian television stations that he was trailing a column of other snowplows and lost his direction in the deep fog.

It wasn't immediately clear why other airport personnel had failed to track his movement. It also wasn't clear why another vehicle was driving across the runway while the plane was already in motion before takeoff.

Investigators said Martynenko's blood alcohol test showed a level of .06 percent. Russia has zero alcohol tolerance for all drivers, let alone those working at airports, but that reading is below the .08 percent legal limit for driving in the United States and Britain.

A Moscow court on Thursday ordered Martynenko held in custody until Dec. 21.

The Investigative Committee, Russia's main investigative agency, said it had expanded the list of suspects to include the flight control chief, two traffic controllers and the senior engineer in charge of snow removal.

Vnukovo Airport, which is owned by the Moscow city government, said Andrei Dyakov, who had served as general director since 2005, and his deputy had resigned over the accident. It also said several airport managers had been suspended.


Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.


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