Family members have provided DNA to help identify 140 of the victims flown home to St Petersburg on Monday
The bodies of 140 of the people killed when a Russian airliner crashed in Egypt’s Sinai desert have begun arriving back home in Saint Petersburg as Russian officials confirmed the aircraft broke up in the air.
The crash killed all 224 people onboard after disaster struck at high altitude, prompting aviation experts to speculate that a sudden mechanical failure or a midair explosion could have been to blame.
The remains of victims were to be taken in a motorcade to a crematorium in Saint Petersburg for identification, which will begin later on Monday, according to Russia’s emergency ministry, which organised the flight.
Family members have been providing DNA samples at a crisis centre set up close to the airport, now the site of an impromptu memorial where people are bringing flowers and cuddly toys to commemorate the victims, many of them children as young as 10 months old.
In Egypt, investigators had rushed to the scene of the wreckage after the crash where 163 bodies had been recovered by Sunday afternoon. Some were found several miles away from the twisted and blackened remains of the Airbus A321. Many personal effects were strewn about with the wreckage in the desert.
Victor Sorochenko, the head of Russia’s interstate aviation committee, said it was too early to draw firm conclusions but it was clear that the plane had broken up in flight on its way from Sharm el-Sheikh to St Petersburg.
That, according to experts, could indicate a bomb caused the disaster, although an explosive decompression from a technical failure is equally possible. The aircraft, built in 1997, suffered a tail strike in 2001, where the rear end of the plane touches the runway on takeoff. It underwent extensive repairs.
At least one major air disaster, a Japan Airlines crash, has been ascribed to weakness caused by similar repairs years earlier. Tony Cable, a former senior investigator at the UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch, said “any weakness or fatigue would be bad news” in that part of the plane.
On Saturday, a militant group affiliated to Islamic State in Egypt claimed responsibility for bringing down the Metrojet, or Kogalymavia, Airbus A321 “in response to Russian airstrikes that killed hundreds of Muslims on Syrian land” – a reference to the aerial bombing campaign recently begun by Vladimir Putin.
However, Egypt and Russia both disputed the group’s claim, suggesting militants in northern Sinai, where Egypt has been fighting an Islamic insurgency, did not have the weaponry to hit a flight at 9,000 metres (31,000ft).
In a bid to help recover bodies and examine evidence from the disaster, Russia’s emergencies ministry sent more than 100 workers to the crash site in Egypt, which is spread over nearly 15 sq km (6 sq miles). They are being joined by staff from the French accident investigation agency, BEA, who will provide technical expertise as the aircraft was designed in France, as well as investigators from Germany, where the plane was manufactured, and Russia, where the Kogalymavia airline operates.
The dead, including more than 20 children, were all Russian apart from four Ukrainians and one person from Belarus.
Russian officials said the revelation that the aircraft broke up in midair did not necessarily mean a bomb had caused the tragedy. News agency Interfax reported that Russia’s transport safety watchdog, Rostransnadzor, had ordered Kogalymavia to ground its fleet of Airbus A321s until the cause of the disaster had been established. An official from Kogalymavia said it was discussing the timing of the safety checks and would take its Airbus A321 planes out of active use one by one without disrupting its flight schedule.
The plane was one of the oldest A321s in service, although its age is not regarded as excessive. It was previously operated by Libyan company Middle East Airlines, Turkey’s Onur Air, Saudi Arabian Airlines and Syrian company Cham Wings Airlines. It had flown 56,000 hours in nearly 21,000 flights.
An Egyptian ground service official who examined the plane before takeoff told the Associated Press it appeared to be in good condition: “Everything checked out in 35 minutes.”
However, a Russian TV channel said a pilot had expressed doubts about its condition. Natalya Trukhacheva, identified as the wife of co-pilot Sergei Trukhachev, was reported as saying he had complained before the flight “that the technical condition of the aircraft left much to be desired”.
Kogalymavia failed a safety inspection in 2014 but reportedly rectified the violations and its planes had not been involved in serious crashes before. A Kogalymavia Tu-154 caught fire on the runway in Surgut on 1 January 2011, however, killing three people and injuring 44.
The aircraft took off at 5.51am Cairo time (03.51 GMT) on Saturday and disappeared from radar screens 23 minutes later, Egypt’s civil aviation ministry said in a statement. According to FlightRadar24, an authoritative flight tracking service based in Sweden, it descended rapidly at about 1,800 metres a minute.