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Jet Carrying Top Russian Hockey Team Crashes

A Russian jet carrying a top ice hockey team crashed while taking off Wednesday in western Russia, killing at least 43 people in one of the worst plane crashes ever involving a sports team.

The Russian Emergency Situations Ministry said the Yak-42 plane crashed as it was trying to take off in clear and sunny weather from Yaroslavl airport, about 185 miles northeast of Moscow. It said the plane was carrying 45 people, including 37 passengers and eight crew members.

The jet was carrying members of the Yaroslavl Lokomotiv hockey team to the Belarus capital of Minsk for their first match of the season in the Kontinental Hockey League, an international club league that pits together teams from Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Latvia and Slovakia.

The Emergency Ministry said Czech players Josef Vasicek, Karel Rachunek and Jan Marek, Swedish goalie Stefan Liv, Canadian coach Brad McCrimmon, Latvian defenseman Karlis Skrastins and defenseman Ruslan Salehi of Belarus were among those killed. Slovakian national team captain Pavol Demitra, who played in the NHL for the St. Louis Blues and the Vancouver Canucks, was also among the dead, officials said.

Officials said Russian player Alexander Galimov survived the crash along with a crewmember.

"Their state of health is very grave. But there is still some hope," said Alexander Degyatryov, chief doctor at Yaroslavl's Solovyov Hospital.

Several hundred mourning fans wearing jerseys and scarves gathered in the evening at the Yaroslavl Lokomotiv stadium to pay their respects.

"We will do our best to ensure that hockey in Yaroslavl does not die, and that it continues to live for the people that were on that plane," said Russian Ice Hockey Federation President Vladislav Tretyak.

Russian NHL star Alex Ovechkin tweeted: "I'm in shock!!!!!R.I.P ..."

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin immediately sent the nation's transport minister to the site, 10 miles east of Yaroslavl. The plane that crashed was built in 1993 and belonged to a small Moscow-based Yak Service company.

One resident, Irina Pryakhova, saw the plane going down.

"It was wobbling in flight, it was clear that something was wrong," she told The Associated Press. "It went down behind the trees and there was a bang and a plume of smoke."

She said rescuers pulled victims' bodies out of the Volga River. "I saw them pulling bodies to the shore, some still in their seats with seatbelts on," Pryakhova said.

Lokomotiv Yaroslavl is a leading force in Russian hockey and came third in the KHL last year. It was also a three-time Russian League champion in 1997, 2002 and 2003. McCrimmon, who took over as coach in May, was most recently an assistant coach with the Detroit Red Wings, and played for years in the NHL for Boston, Philadelphia, Detroit, Hartford and Phoenix.

The crash is the latest in a series of plane disasters in Russia. Analysts blame lax safety rules since the collapse of the Soviet Union. President Dmitry Medvedev 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 dozens are still in service with Russian and other airlines.

In June, another Russian passenger jet crashed in the northwestern city of Petrozavodsk, killing 47 people. The crash of that Tu-134 plane has been blamed on pilot error.

In past plane crashes involving sports teams, 75 Marshall University football players, coaches, fans and airplane crew died in Kentucky on Nov. 17, 1970, on the way home from a game. Twenty-six of the dead were players.

Thirty members of the Uruguayan rugby club Old Christians 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 Brussels.

Jessica Golloher reported from Moscow for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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