ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — As Russia mourned the 224 victims of a charter flight that crashed over the weekend on the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, investigators on Sunday began the difficult process of trying to determine whether the plane, which they said had broken up in midair, was brought down by an act of terrorism or a tragic accident.
After surveying the wreckage scattered across eight square miles of the barren, black pebbles of the Sinai Desert plateau, Viktor Sorochenko, the director of the Interstate Aviation Commission, told journalists that the wide dispersion meant that the plane had disintegrated before the pieces fell to earth.
But that alone did not indicate any specific cause for the crash, he said, describing the debris field as a giant ellipse. “It is too soon to talk about conclusions,” he was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency. “The collapse occurred in midair, and the wreckage is scattered over a vast area.”
The circumstances of the crash kept alive the possibilities that mechanical failure or terrorism might have caused the catastrophe. Either appeared plausible to aviation experts.
Map | Sharm ei-Sheikh
One former French accident investigator, Alain Bouillard, said he could think of no plausible scenario in which a mechanical problem could have led to a midair breakup at cruising altitude of a modern aircraft like the Airbus A321-200 that crashed in Sinai.
“A rupture in flight after a technical fault seems to me highly improbable,” he added.
But Mark Rosenker, a former chairman of the United States National Transportation Safety Board, said he thought the crash was more likely to be an accident than terrorism and noted that the plane had been damaged in 2001 when its tail struck the runway upon landing in Cairo. (At the time, the plane was operated by Middle East Airlines, a Lebanese carrier.) But he said that he could not rule out terrorism as a possible cause.
United States government officials said on Sunday they remained skeptical that terrorism was involved, and instead focused on indications of some sort of mechanical failure. Information extracted from the black boxes, which have already been recovered, was likely to yield further clues as to what happened.
Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, said on Sunday that the investigation could take months and that his government had no plans to issue frequent updates about its progress.
“We do not want to jump ahead of events and talk because even that takes away from our credibility,” he said during a speech to Egyptian military officials.
In St. Petersburg on Sunday, an endless stream of the bereaved, many of whom knew none of the victims, filed past an impromptu shrine outside Pulkovo Airport, tearfully leaving flowers and stuffed animals in tribute to the dead. Thousands more attended a candlelight vigil in the windy, early darkness of fall outside the city’s famed Winter Palace.
Flags were lowered to half-staff throughout the country, and Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church reflected the somber mood in a sermon expressing compassion for the victims of Russia’s worst air disaster.
“Two hundred twenty-four people, mainly young and healthy, including children, happy on the way back from a holiday — they were probably chatting merrily, recalling their vacation,” he said during his sermon Sunday in Moscow, according to Interfax. “Everything was cut tragically short.”
Russian charter airlines have a dismal safety record, while a violent Islamic insurgency has long plagued the northern Sinai Peninsula where the plane crashed. Its fighters possess at least short-range, shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles, although not the type that can blast an airplane near a cruising altitude of 31,000 feet.
Russia’s military entered the Syrian civil war on the side of the government a month ago, with around 50 aircraft bombing targets of virtually all the groups opposed to President Bashar al-Assad, including the Islamic State. That prompted Islamic extremists to call for jihad against Russia, and its law enforcement agencies have claimed to break up several terrorist plots.
The flight recorders from the 18-year-old Airbus A321-200 were in good enough condition to decipher, Maxim Sokolov, Russia’s minister of transportation, said Sunday before leaving Egypt to return home, but that work had not yet begun. He had earlier rejected speculation that terrorism was a possible explanation for the crash as “fabrications.”
The Islamic State’s Sinai branch, which had released a statement claiming responsibility for bringing down the Russian airplane within hours of the crash, did not provide any further evidence to support its claim on Sunday.
The group has released photographs or videos after large-scale attacks, showing the assaults or profiles of the attackers to prove its claims. In the past, the Islamic State has also issued false statements of responsibility in Egypt.
Analysts have said that it was unlikely that militants could have shot down the plane, though they have left open the possibility of a bomb or some other sabotage.
The Air Arabia, Emirates and FlyDubai airlines on Sunday joined Air France-KLM and Lufthansa in announcing that flights would be rerouted around the Sinai Peninsula as a precaution, until the risk of a surface-to-air missile attack could be ruled out.
Timeline | What We Know So Far
Paul Hayes, director of Ascend Worldwide, a British aviation consultancy, said a midair breakup did not rule out mechanical faults or pilot error as a cause, while also leaving open the possibility of terrorism.
“Airplanes have broken up as a result of sabotage or a bomb on board, and also during efforts to recover that overstressed the airframe,” he said, referring to a pilot’s efforts to recover from a stall or spin at a high speed. “The breakup could have occurred during an out-of-control descent.”
Experts and other commentators in Russia leaned heavily toward mechanical explanations, not a stretch given the dismal safety record of the country’s airline industry.
The wife of the co-pilot of the Airbus told Russia’s NTV channel that her husband had complained about the mechanical condition of the plane, operated by Kogalymavia, a private company flying planes under the name Metrojet. The woman, Natalya Trukhacheva, told the station that her husband had said before the flight that the “technical condition of the airplane left much to be desired.”
Yulia Latynina, a columnist for Novaya Gazeta, wrote that the basic conclusion to be drawn from the crash was that the Russian aviation industry was in disarray and that the government was to blame for not clearing it up. “Some simple advice: Do not ever fly on Russian charter flights,” she wrote.
Alexander Fridland, an expert from the Russian Institute for Civilian Aviation Research, told the RBC newspaper that the reason could have been troubles with the electric system, a fire on board or possibly an explosion in the hold. He discounted engine trouble. “If something is wrong, the crew won’t take off,” he said. “They are not suicidal, after all.”
Other experts noted that an engine fire should not prove fatal, that the plane could fly on one engine or even none, and that it would have plenty of time to radio to ground control that it was in trouble.
The sudden dive and radio silence prompted some to conclude that the Islamic State was responsible, taking revenge for the military campaign that President Vladimir V. Putin began in Syria a month ago.
Among the mourners at the St. Petersburg airport shrine, Sergei Kubar blamed terrorists. “When Putin started to bomb Syria, I said we could expect something like this,” he said.
Discussion forums on television devoted some time to discussing the possibility of terrorism, but the news programs on state-run television and the country’s more high-profile commentators largely avoided the question. News reports only mentioned the Islamic State claim in passing, dismissing it quickly.
Other issues prompted much more of a discussion. First, the reaction in Ukraine, home to three of the victims. The crash prompted an outpouring of sympathy, with flowers and condolence notes placed outside the Russian Embassy in Kiev.
Russian-backed separatists are believed to have used a surface-to-air missile to bring down a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 flying over Ukraine in July 2014, killing all 298 people on board. Russia has strenuously denied any connection to the tragedy.
In Egypt, search crews had transferred 163 bodies from the site to Cairo hospitals and morgues by Sunday. Most of them were to be flown back to St. Petersburg overnight, the Egyptian government said in a statement.
A passenger manifest released by the Russian government indicated that many victims were young families, including at least 17 children, or young singles.
In St. Petersburg, Aleksander Danilov, 30, carried a picture of his sister, Natalya, 28, onto Palace Square for the candlelight vigil attended by a huge cross-section of the city.
She and two friends had been ecstatic to find a cheap deal for what was Ms. Danilova’s second trip to Egypt, he said.
Mr. Danilov and his mother said that they had tried to call Metrojet, the charter company, to find out more details of what happened, but could not get through. No one from the airline had called them.
“They buy old, cheap scrap metal,” he said, referring to the planes. “We should be building our own planes.”
Nearby, Aleksander Telyupa, 34, said he had lost a good friend, Lyubov Mozgina, who had been flying with her daughter and mother. Ms. Mozgina went to Egypt every year because she felt a strong connection with an ancient Egyptian goddess, he said.
“God had sent her warnings not to travel there — last year she broke her arm in Egypt and suffered other misfortunes,” he said. “She said it felt like her home.”
Reporting was contributed by Alexandra Odynova from St. Petersburg, Ivan Nechepurenko from Moscow, Kareem Fahim from Cairo, Nicola Clark from Paris, Jad Mouawad from New York, and Peter Baker from Washington.
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