Sinai crash: Families' painful wait in St Petersburg

By Sarah Rainsford
BBC News, St Petersburg

Published
media captionOlga Ovechkina went to meet her son and daughter-in-law at the airport but they never arrived

When Olga Ovechkina set off for St Petersburg airport last Saturday to meet her son and daughter-in-law off their holiday flight she still had no idea what had happened.

Vladislav and Lilia Movchanov had spent a fortnight in Sharm el-Sheikh celebrating their fourth wedding anniversary and Vladislav's new job in a bank.

"They phoned every day and they were so cheerful. They'd say, 'It's such fun here!'" Olga recalls, her eyes shining at the memory.

Ever since it was confirmed that flight 9268 had crashed in the Egyptian desert, people have been streaming to the airport here to leave tributes to those killed.

There is now a huge pile of flowers and soft toys outside the arrivals hall where Vladislav, Lilia and 222 others should have returned.

A group of friends brought photographs of a young woman to add to the shrine one evening then stood drinking a toast in her memory, hugging each another quietly in tears.

image copyrightReuters
image captionMourn visit a makeshift memorial outside the airport

Olga Ovechkina says she had a premonition something was wrong as she drove towards the terminal. It was so strong that she pulled over and tried to call her son.

"I could barely dial. The phone was jumping in my hands. I was shaking."

When she finally managed to dial, the phone was blocked.

"I knew… my son was already gone," Olga says.

Agonising wait

Anxious for information, she and other relatives now come to a hotel near the airport each day.

It has become the headquarters for an emergency response team. Raw-eyed relatives wander the lobby here or sit quietly and cry.

Dozens of psychologists are on hand to offer comfort, themselves clearly drained by the experience.

image copyrightReuters
image captionThis disaster - the worst in Russian aviation history - has hit St Petersburg especially hard

Olga has given a saliva sample for DNA. But putting a name to each victim is agonisingly slow work for those who are waiting.

Forensic teams have now sent samples to Moscow so that experts there can help speed up the process.

The first funeral takes place on Thursday, in Velikiy Novgorod.

But this disaster - the worst in Russian aviation history - has hit St Petersburg especially hard.

The vast majority of those on board were from the city and surrounding region, which has held five days of official mourning.

Unity Day celebrations were cancelled here on Wednesday, whilst in Moscow President Vladimir Putin marked the holiday with an address to a forum for civil society groups that made no reference to the tragedy. He talked instead of patriotism and Russian power.

'They have to do something'

But at a second shrine to the plane crash victims on the damp flagstones outside the Winter Palace, one woman's lip shook with anger as she talked of the disaster.

"Maybe now the government will realise they have to do something. To think about people's safety and change the planes," Anastasia Huta said.

She admitted she had been crying herself for several days.

"The attitude here is just, well, it's flying - so that's fine. It's very frightening for all of us," Anastasia said.

image captionTwenty-five children were lost on the Kogalymavia flight, including a 10-month-old baby
image captionMourners have created a second shrine to the victims outside St Petersburg's Winter Palace

State TV has avoided much reference to terrorism as a possible cause of the disaster, despite an early claim of responsibility by militants who have sworn allegiance to the militant Islamic State group.

The Kremlin's spokesman described linking the crash to Russia's airstrikes against IS targets in Syria as "inappropriate".

Instead, there has been considerable TV discussion of a possible technical fault.

"I think there were probably technical problems," Tamara Romontovskaya reflected, next to the memorial.

She struggled to hold back tears as she spoke, calling on Russia's leader to "take note" so there was "no more pain like this".

"I don't want to believe it was terrorism; that there are people able to kill like that," she added.

image captionSeven crew were killed in the disaster, including Andrey Vitalyevich Belomestnov (R)

Russian teams are still searching the crash site, an area now expanded to 40 sq km (15 sq miles). They want to be sure no remains, no personal belongings are left behind.

All the families can do for now, is wait.

As she does, Olga Ovechkina recalls how her son tried to persuade her to join the couple by the sea in Egypt, even for a day.

"Now I know if your children call, you should always go," she says, softly.

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