More than 200 passengers and crew aboard a Russian airliner flying from the popular tourist resort Sharm el-Sheikh have died after it crashed in the Sinai desert.
The flight, operated by Metrojet and bound for St Petersburg, lost contact with air traffic control 23 minutes after departure. Its wreckage was found about 100km (60 miles) south of the north Sinai town of El-Arish, Egyptian officials said.
A north Sinai security source said a technical fault was the initial explanation for the crash, adding that the plane had landed in a “vertical fashion”.
The first rescue workers at the scene described the plane as “completely destroyed” and Egyptian security officer told Reuters that many passengers had died strapped to their seats.
“The plane split into two, a small part on the tail end that burned and a larger part that crashed into a rock. We have extracted at least 100 bodies and the rest are still inside,” he said.
The Russian Embassy in Cairo said it had been told by Egyptian officials the pilot had been trying to make an emergency landing at El-Arish.
Conflicting reports had earlier emerged, with suggestions that there had been some survivors after voices were heard in the wreckage of the plane’s cabin. Egyptian search and rescue officials said later that all 224 on board, including 17 children, had died.
Airbus said the A321-200 that crashed was 18 years old, had made almost 21,000 flights and accrued about 56,000 flight hours. It had been operated by the Russian airline since 2012.
Kogalymavia, which owns Metrojet, said there were “no grounds” to blame the incident on human error. Russian state media reported that the crew had complained to officials earlier this week about the state of the plane, claiming it should be flown due to technical issues.
“This aircraft appealed to the technical service in connection with engine start failure several times over the past week before this,” a source told the RIA agency.
Distraught relatives gathered throughout Saturday at St Petersburg’s Pulkovo airport, where the flight had been due to land at 1210pm local time.
Viktoria Sevryukova, 24, was one of the names on a passenger list published by Russia’s Association of Tour Operators. She had posted photographs of herself relaxing on the beach during her holiday in Sharm el-Sheikh.
Sevryukova’s friend, Yevgenia Beryozina, told the Guardian she felt “emptiness” and still could not believe the news. “She was my best friend – she had waited for this trip like I don’t know what,” Beryozina said. “And now she’s gone. Just like that she’s gone.”
Beryozina described Sevrukova as “positive, smart and sociable” and that “everything was just starting to work out” in her life. “It’s just not fair.”
Ella Smirnova, a 25-year-old, said she was due to meet her parents who were aboard the flight. “I spoke to them last on the phone when they were already on the plane, and then I heard the news. I will keep hoping until the end that they are alive, but perhaps I will never see them again,” she said.
The plane, which had a tail number of EI-ETJ, lost contact 23 minutes after takeoff while flying at more than 30,000 ft above sea level, according to the plane tracker website Flight Radar. It had begun to make a steep descent at a rate of 6,000 feet per minute shortly before communications were lost.
— Flightradar24 (@flightradar24) October 31, 2015
Russia’s aviation authority, Rosaviatsiya, said flight 7K9268 failed to make scheduled contact with Cyprus air traffic control and disappeared from the radar.
Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed his deepest condolences to the families of victims of the crash of a Russian airliner in Egypt.
The last major commercial plane crash in Egypt happened in 2004, when a Flash Airlines Boeing 737 plunged into the Red Sea after taking off from Sharm el-Sheikh.
The 148 people aboard that flight, most of whom were French, were killed.
Millions of people, many of them Russian, visit the resort – one of Egypt’s major tourist draws – every year.