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EDITIONS
Saturday, 6 July, 2002, 14:45 GMT 15:45 UK
Grief amid the wreckage
Relatives visit the wreckage from the air crash at Ueberlingen
Relatives knew this visit was the final farewell

At first glimpse you might think the long line of people filing out of the coaches and into the wheat fields was just a party of tourists come to see some vaguely interesting archaeological site.

But this was the graveyard of 52 Russian schoolchildren killed in a head-on plane crash and it was their parents and families who had come to say goodbye.

Many of the relatives came in large family groups, black-clad grandmothers clutched wreathes and flowers, fathers, tears streaming down their faces, gently led their wives closer to the wreckage.

Relatives arriving to visit crash site
Weeping fathers led their wives to the wreckage
The tail of the plane had sheered off from the main body of the aircraft and the jagged piece was lying beside part of one of the engines.

The metal had been twisted and burned into cruel and vicious looking shapes - some of the relatives touched the wreckage gingerly, others seemed to stroke it as they sobbed.

The previous day, I had visited the crash site and stood just a little further back from where the children's parents were now praying.

Hard to imagine

I had had trouble connecting the image of a big sturdy airliner, full of people, with the flimsy looking pieces of scrap metal I saw lying before me on the ground.

One of the policeman guarding the area nodded at me sympathetically.


They have already been told it would be too distressing for them to see the bodies of their loved ones

"Its hard to imagine," he said in broken English. "But I don't imagine only, I saw."

He explained that he had been in the first team of officers to be sent to the accident.

At that stage there were hopes of finding survivors, but it soon became clear that this would be simply a recovery operation and not a rescue programme - the planes had shattered into little pieces across a 20-mile radius.

Yellowed cloth

"I saw some bodies" he said. "They were..." he shifted uncomfortably trying to find the right words in English. "They were very bad. Sometimes I just found parts."


  • Tupolev 154 flying from Moscow to Barcelona
  • Boeing 757 flying from Bergamo to Brussels
  • Collision happened on 1 July at 2130 GMT. All on board both planes lost


  • As I stared at the wreckage, I felt something brush against my leg in the long grass and bent down to pick up a sizeable piece of frayed and yellowed cloth.

    It looked like a part of somebody's coat.

    Another journalist took it from me and carefully turned it over a few times in his hands.

    "If I was one of the Russian parents," he said, "I wouldn't want to come here or to know about this."

    For now the families just want to grieve.

    But there will come a time when they will want to know everything.

    Uncomfortably, the finger of blame seems increasingly to be pointing over the border to neighbouring Switzerland.

    Ugly picture

    Switzerland was in charge of the air space at the time of the accident, but failed to see the collision coming until it was all too late.

    Relatives arrive carrying a wreath
    Some parents laid wreaths, others took a handful of soil from the site away with them
    This week's revelations by the investigating authorities have deeply shaken the accepted image of Switzerland as a perfectly regulated and ordered country with a high tech industry.

    The ugly pictures painted by Russian and German officials suggest that the Zurich watch tower was only half paying attention to the flight paths of the cargo plane and Tupolev that night.

    And that the single Swiss air traffic controller on duty at the time was hassled, overworked and obliged to use outdated radar systems.

    Looking back at the parents weeping in the field, it is easy to see why the local journalists were prompted to write such bitter editorials.

    The dead Russian children really were children to be proud of - most came from poor families and their planned trip to Barcelona was a reward from the local council for excelling at school.

    Loss

    Prize-winning children, children with promise, now remembered only by a handful of soil or a few stalks of wheat gathered by their anguished parents from the fields where they died.

    Crash wreckage
    Bodies and debris were scattered over several square miles
    They have already been told it would be too distressing for them to see the bodies of their loved ones, so they know that this is their final farewell.

    They move back towards the buses reluctantly, glancing continually over their shoulders at the wreckage, as if to check, with a poignantly futile sense of parental responsibility, that it is still alright, that it is still all there.

    Throughout their visit, green uniformed policemen have been continuing their searches of the wheat fields with long sticks.

    Suddenly an old woman, who has been lingering behind the rest of the group, starts frantically ripping through the grasses, arms flailing wildly as she pulls at the reeds and scrabbles desperately at the ground.

    A couple of the officers look panicked and freeze their activity.

    An elderly man shuffles towards the old lady, puts his arms around her and gently pulls towards the coach.

    You do not need to speak Russian to know that he is telling her that what she's lost, she will never find again.


    Key stories:

    At the scene:

    Background:

    TALKING POINT
    See also:

    03 Jul 02 | Europe
    04 Jul 02 | Europe
    03 Jul 02 | Europe
    26 May 02 | In Depth
    04 Jul 02 | Media reports
    Internet links:


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