The Big Read: The team that disappeared

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 26, 2011 issue of Sportsnet magazine. Brett Popplewell claimed a gold medal for sports at the National Magazine Awards in 2012.

AT 4:05 IN THE AFTERNOON all but one of the Railway Men were sealed inside an aging plane, staring down an empty runway. In the cabin sat Lokomotiv, the gods of Yaroslavl whose names 600,000 people cheered and cried. Twenty-six hockey players and 11 coaches and staff embarking on a two-hour flight to their season opener in Minsk.

Directly behind the cockpit sat the coaches. There was Brad McCrimmon, the ‘Beast’ from Saskatchewan, one of the men on-board with his name on the Stanley Cup. Still driven by ambition at the age of 52, he had recently left his home in Detroit and crossed the Atlantic to coach this team. And beside him sat his assistant, Igor Korolev, the former Maple Leaf who played for five teams in a 12-year NHL career, back in his homeland but far from his family in Toronto on this, the day after his 41st birthday. Beside him sat his old friend Alexander Karpovtsev, the former Ranger who’d stood by Korolev’s side on his wedding day in Moscow 21 years ago. He was the second man aboard this plane with his name on hockey’s most revered chalice.

Behind the coaches sat the players. Young and old, from the former all-star to the struggling prospect, together they formed one of the strongest teams in the second-best league in the world.

At the front sat the stars. There was Pavol Demitra, the alternate captain of Slovakia’s 2010 Olympic team. The man who led that tournament in points and pushed his countrymen past the Russians in the preliminary round with a shootout goal. There was Ivan Tkachenko, the face of Lokomotiv, who had scored the winning goal in overtime in his team’s final home game last season. There was Alexander Galimov, the fighter and showman. The one who blew a kiss to his wife after every goal. And behind them sat the rookies, including two of the country’s most talented prospects: best friends Yuri Urychev and Daniil Sobchenko, members of the Russian Junior Hockey Team that defeated Team Canada in the gold medal game nine months earlier in Buffalo. Both of them dreaming of a life in the NHL. And near them was an open seat, reserved for their friend, Maxim Zyuzyakin, who wouldn’t be getting on this flight.

Twenty-three Russians, three Ukrainians, three Czechs, three Belarusians and a Slovak, a German, a Swede, a Latvian and a Canadian. One of the proudest teams in the Kontinental Hockey League. A 52-year-old franchise, as storied as any in Russia, about to commence an eight-month campaign against 23 teams spread across eight time zones of the former Soviet Union, each team fighting for the Gagarin Cup, Russia’s greatest hockey prize. The people of Yaroslavl said the Railway Men were favoured for victory in Minsk and for victory thereafter. It was this team, the people said, that was destined to sip from Gagarin’s Cup. Now they sat together, heading west toward a clear horizon above a village built around a church the colour of chalk and a tranquil tributary flowing into the Volga River.

But the Railway Men were not alone in the cabin. There were three Russian flight attendants sitting among them. And there was Alexander Sizov, a 52-year-old flight engineer, one of two engineers on-board, who had inspected the plane before takeoff and who now sat behind the players, his seatbelt unbuckled. In the cockpit there was the pilot, Andrei Solomentsev, a Muscovite with 6,900 hours at the helm. Beside him was Igor Zhevelov, his co-pilot and friend. Their task: fly RA-42434 from Moscow to Yaroslavl then onward to Minsk.

Outside it was a clear, late summer day. Nearly 18 degrees Celsius with a light wind from the north, a few clusters of dark, rounded clouds hovering a kilometre from the ground. As the Railway Men settled into their seats, the control tower cleared the captain to roll the 18-year-old jet onto runway 23 and power up the engines for a westbound takeoff. The airport was busy that afternoon. As the three engines shuddered to life, the players could look out their windows at all the other planes on the tarmac, arriving from around the world to deliver foreign dignitaries for a global forum-the Turkish president and the Russian president among them.

Then the cockpit radio crackled.

“Permission given for flight.”

AND SO IT BEGAN, the shortest journey and the darkest day in the history of hockey.

One flight, seemingly as routine as any other, the second of three that day for the crew. The first of 50 for the team this season. One of thousands in the careers of the veterans. On the day they left for Minsk, they didn’t get the chance to say goodbye. Not to their families and not to their fans.

They’d been travelling their entire careers. Each of them had logged countless hours on the road and in the sky. On any given day a team embarks on a journey. They come together as individuals, at unique stages in their careers and lives. They board buses and planes-just as they have hundreds, thousands of times before. They sacrifice days with their families, and assume an unspoken risk in order to live out the dreams of their youth.

After many journeys and victories, a few become legends and they are seen like gods, whose every move is watched and analyzed by the fans who cheer for them.

On Sept. 7, a team, as mortal as any other, embarked on an 82-second trip down a runway, into the sky, then back down to earth.

IT WAS THE SOUND OF THE ENGINES, so low to the earth and roaring that first caught the two policemen’s attention. Sitting in a patrol boat 500 metres from the runway where the river flows into the Volga, they turned and looked to their right as RA-42434 fell into the weedy shores between them and the nearby church.

They watched in disbelief as the force of the impact split the plane apart and scattered its burning wreckage along the river, a large black plume rising into the sky. The policemen raised anchor and sped toward the crash. In little more than a minute they were drifting through the wreckage surrounded by smoke, flames and 14 tonnes of jet fuel.

Amid the carnage, a lone man stood chest deep in the shallows, screaming as he tore what looked like a burning shirt from his body. “Brothers, help me!”

As the policemen motored toward the burning man, a female paramedic, Nataliya Panova, ran to the crash from the river bank. Moments earlier she had looked out a window in the village hospital not far from the end of the runway and saw the plane exploding. As she approached a wall of scorching heat, the taste of black tea she had just finished drinking faded from her mouth, replaced by the acrid fuel.

As soon as the smoke rose into the air, the director of the airport realized what had happened. Minutes before, he had looked on in awe as the hockey gods of Yaroslavl passed him inside the terminal. He ran to his Volvo, his heart pounding as he raced down the tarmac toward the black cloud rising above the broken trees beyond his runway. Soon he was on foot, running past figures still buckled in their seats, his suit pants catching fire from the embers as he ran along the shore, searching for survivors.

A second one emerged. It was Sizov, the engineer, struggling desperately to pull a man in uniform from the wreckage. Seated at the back of the plane, Sizov had been launched from his seat, the right side of his body smashing into something. He now found himself in a river. He did not notice the mayhem around him, the shouts from the living, the stares from the already dead. He didn’t even notice the flames.

The paramedic ran to the engineer while the police manoeuvred their boat toward the burning man wading through the shallows. As the two officers approached him they realized he hadn’t been peeling off his shirt, but rather his skin. Ninety percent of his body had been charred, and they weren’t sure what to grab. They reached for his wrists and pulled him into the boat.

“I can’t see,” the man said. “My face, what’s wrong with my face? What’s wrong with my eyes?”

“Everything is OK,” they told him. And as they covered him with a blanket he asked that they call his wife and tell her he’d been in a plane crash. As they brought him to shore and loaded him onto a stretcher he told them his name.

“Brothers, I am Galimov.”

Only then did they realize the Railway Men had been on-board.

It wasn’t long until images of the smouldering plane began appearing on Russian TV, and within minutes the news spread around the world.

As the late afternoon turned to evening, a priest stood outside the church and began ringing the bells.

Then divers began pulling bodies from the water while others unbuckled the dead from their seats. All were brought to the paramedic for an official declaration of death. Forty-three times she shook her head. Forty-three times she did not cry.

The bells tolled until the early hours of the next day when a truck carrying 43 bodies left for the Yaroslavl morgue.

WHILE THE BELLS RANG OUT ABOVE THE DEAD, the phones began to ring. It was morning in North America. Late afternoon in Russia, Slovakia, Sweden, Germany, Latvia, Ukraine, Belarus and the Czech Republic, as news of the crash reached the families and friends of the men being pulled from the wreckage.

In Brandon, Man., Kelly McCrimmon had just arrived at Westman Place arena. As head coach of the Western Hockey League’s Wheat Kings, he stood near the ice where his older brother, Brad, had played 35 years ago. Two days earlier, the brothers had spoken and wished each other good luck in their upcoming seasons. It was a jovial conversation shared by men with the same blood, job and passion. Now, the younger brother was looking at his assistant coach, who was about to tell him something horrible had happened halfway around the world.

Thirty-three years earlier, Brad McCrimmon had stood on the blueline in a different town. He was 19 years old, sporting a maple leaf on his sweater, defending his country in a losing battle against the Soviet Union. A prairie boy getting his first exposure to the world stage. The Cold War was in a state of détente, but inside the Colisée de Québec that December day in 1977, the sentiments between the two junior teams were as cold as the ice on which they fought.

Drafted by the Boston Bruins in 1979, McCrimmon would play beside three of the greatest defencemen of his era. Ray Bourque, Mark Howe, Paul Coffey-all would call him their friend. It was his aggressive play on the ice that earned the 200-pounder with the dark eyes and the toothless grin the moniker ‘Beast.’ He won the Stanley Cup with the Calgary Flames in 1989, the same year men tore down the Berlin Wall. Then the world changed, and the game did too. Russian players began making their way to North America and, before long, Canadian players would pack their bags and head east as well.

When McCrimmon retired in 1997, he had one of the best plus-minus numbers of any player in NHL history. He moved to the bench and spent 12 of the next 14 years as an assistant coach, first with the New York Islanders, then with the Calgary Flames and the Atlanta Thrashers before joining the Red Wings in 2008. But after three years as the second man behind the Detroit bench, the Beast was frustrated and looking for a team of his own. But there were none in the NHL.

In June, the phone rang with an offer. One of the best clubs in the KHL was in need of a coach. The pitch was simple. Depart one hockey-crazed town for another. Pack your bags, fly to Moscow, then board a train and head 250 km to the north and east until you reach a 1,000-year-old town founded on the site where Prince Yaroslavl the Wise once bludgeoned a bear. Come, and lead the Railway Men to the Gagarin Cup, named for a cosmonaut, the first man in space, and awarded every April to the victors of the KHL playoffs.

His friends say he knew what he was getting into. Among those he called that June was Dave King, assistant coach of the Phoenix Coyotes, who had coached in Russia. They talked about the league, the quality of the players, the chances for success. They talked about the planes. Pterodactyl Air, King had labelled the charters.

Standing in the Detroit airport in late July, Brad pulled out his phone and dialed his old friend and former roommate. “I’m sorry,” he told Mark Howe. “I won’t be able to be there when they induct you into the Hall of Fame.”

Howe told him not to worry. Told him to go get Gagarin’s Cup and then come back and claim his place behind an NHL bench. It was the last time Howe spoke to the man with whom he’d gone to the Stanley Cup finals.

Victory came early in Yaroslavl. A month after McCrimmon arrived, the Railway Men shut out their opponents during a tournament in Latvia and brought home a trophy.

“Big things are coming,” he told the Railway Men in the days leading up to the season opener in Minsk.

Then he boarded one last plane. And before the hour was out, Mark Howe’s phone was ringing. Soon he was among Brad’s many friends to dial the McCrimmon family home in Detroit.

I’m sorry, he told his best friend’s widow. So very, very sorry.

IN PEORIA, ILL., KRISTINA KOROLEV AWOKE to the sound of her BlackBerry ringing. The 18-year-old first-year college student looked at the call display and saw that her mother was calling from Toronto. Still groggy, she answered. “I don’t know how to tell you this, Kristina,” her mother said while crying. “Your father’s plane has crashed. Pack a bag, we have to go.” Kristina could barely comprehend the call. She had spoken to her father the day before, wished him a happy birthday.

Now fully awake, she hung up and screamed and cried. She pulled on her hair and wiped her eyes, as she fought to calm down and pack her bag. She reached for a pin with her father’s face, a keepsake from his first year as a player with Lokomotiv in 2004. She pinned it to her shirt and got the school nurse to drive her to Peoria airport. There she sat, staring at her laptop, reading news reports about the plane crash and refreshing her father’s Wikipedia page, hoping, praying, for news of his survival. As the boarding call came over the intercom, she refreshed the page once more.

She noticed the changes immediately. The “is” after his name, replaced by “was,” and his date of birth followed by another date. Today’s date.

“Igor Borisovich Korolev (Russian: ; September 6, 1970-September 7, 2011) was a Russian/Canadian professional ice hockey player and coach.”

She sobbed, then closed her laptop and boarded the first of four flights that would take her to Russia.

A day later, she was standing with her sister, Anastasia, and her mother, Vera, beside her father’s casket, receiving instructions in a Yaroslavl morgue.

“Whatever you do, do not open the casket,” they were told.

Three days later she stood with her mother and her sister and the families of other team members in the Lokomotiv arena among 35,000 mourners paying tribute to the victims of the plane crash. There was Vladimir Putin, Russia’s prime minister, sombre faced, as he passed her father’s casket and 35 others resting on the ice. Outside, a crowd of 100,000 stood in the pouring rain, all of them praying for the dead and the survivors, Sizov and Galimov, both lying in a Moscow hospital.

Later, Kristina stood along the scorched banks of the river where RA-42434 had crashed. It didn’t feel like her father was dead, she thought, just that he had gone away again to play the game that had propelled him through life. It had led him and his wife-the woman he’d met in school when they were both just seven-from Moscow to St. Louis then on to Winnipeg, Phoenix, Toronto and Chicago before bringing him back to Russia and Yaroslavl. She remembered the good times. The recent summer trip to Turks and Caicos when her father was relaxed, going deep-sea fishing and lying on the beach. Then came the call and the offer to come to Yaroslavl-the town where his playing career had come to an end a year earlier-to be the bridge between the Railway Men and their new Canadian coach. Shortly after that call, she sat in the island paradise, listening to her father explain to his family why it would be good for him to leave Toronto. This was his chance to get back in the game. He wanted their blessing. If only they’d protested. If only she’d told him to stay. Then she wouldn’t be here, standing in this place, smelling nothing but fuel.

As Kristina walked along the bank, she saw something shining among the weeds. It was a piece of the plane. She picked it up, put it in her pocket then left with her mother and sister and set her mind toward burying her father in Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto, halfway between their house and the Gardens he once called home.

OF ALL THE LIVING AND ALL THE DEAD, none were as admired as Ivan Tkachenko-the 31-year-old from Yaroslavl with the dirty-blond hair and the striking blue eyes; the child who learned to skate on an outdoor rink on the edge of Yaroslavl; the man who didn’t want to be captain anymore because he didn’t want the pressure.

On the night before the crash, he was shopping with his brother when he got a call from his wife, the girl-next-door, the one he first kissed at the age of 15. “We’re going to have a son,” she told him. He was smiling when he said goodbye to his brother and headed home with a bottle of champagne.

It was that smile that his friends remember most. In the weeks and months after his death, people clung to his image, cutting his photo out of magazines and taping it to the side of the arena where he had played.

But there was so much about him that people didn’t see. The dutiful father of two young girls. The charitable man giving thousands of dollars to sick children. Moments before boarding the plane, he made one last transfer, $16,000 for a 16-year-old girl who needed surgery. He had never met her and his name was omitted from the transfer.

The people of Yaroslavl never dreamt he’d leave them, because he never dreamt of going anywhere. Drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2002, he was the longest-serving of all the Railway Men, the only remaining champion from the days of glory. He was just a kid on the team when they won the cup in 2002 and again in 2003. Now he was the man many expected would carry the team back to victory. He had handed his captaincy to Karel Rachunek, the Czech veteran and former Ottawa Senator, and slipped out from under the scrutiny of a town of 600,000 hockey-crazed fans, but he never escaped the spotlight. He was the one who’d left the ice on so many nights with 9,000 fans crammed into the arena screaming his name. The one who scored twice and brought his team back from the brink of elimination in his final home game back in April. Two goals watched over and over again by the ones he left behind.

He was smiling when he left them. The boy from Yaroslavl, found buckled in his seat and looking almost happy as he rested on the river bank.

Even in death, it was that youthful face-the face of the franchise-untouched by the fire, which both comforted and pained the paramedic as she looked into his eyes and declared him dead.

One face, untouched by the fire. One man, to lie in an open coffin.

YURI URYCHEV DIDN’T HAVE TO BOARD THAT PLANE, but he wanted to be with his friends.

The only child of a single mother, he dreamt of one day being chosen to play for the Rangers in New York. He was seven years old when he first strapped on skates. A late bloomer, by Yaroslavl’s standards, but he excelled quickly, stickhandling with purpose from the age of 10. Those who knew him and the game said he was destined for greatness, a future Olympian and an NHL star.

He had already represented his country at the world juniors in Buffalo and beat Team Canada in the gold-medal game. He’d framed the jersey he wore that night, and now it sat by his bed, awaiting a nail to hang on the wall.

Months after that victory in Buffalo, the 20-year-old defenceman with the pointed chin, shaggy hair and six-foot-four frame watched as the names of other players from around the world were called out during the NHL draft. When he was not chosen, he swore he’d prove them wrong.

He laboured through the summer, footing the bill to skate up hills at a state-of-the-art facility in New Jersey. Then back to Yaroslavl, where he trained with his mentor, “Old Uncle Igor,” as he called Korolev, the assistant coach with the house in Toronto who told him he could make it on any team in the NHL.

As the summer drew to a close, he was eager to join the Railway Men and prove his worth. But his fingers were broken from an injury in practice and he was still dealing with a suspension from a mid-ice collision in the previous season. Though he couldn’t play, he insisted on taking his seat on the plane.

He would, at least, be able to offer encouragement to his two best friends: Daniil Sobchenko and Maxim Zyuzyakin, more boys than men, who also dreamt of the NHL. For seven years the three friends had worked their way up through the ranks of Lokomotiv’s junior clubs.

On his final day, he awoke in the two-bedroom apartment he shared with his mother on the outskirts of Yaroslavl. He packed his bags and made his bed. His mother was out of town.

Hours later, his mother boarded a plane. Returning from holiday in Turkey, she did not learn her son’s fate until her phone buzzed to life in the Moscow airport and she began receiving the texts of condolence. She collapsed. Driven the 250 km from Moscow to Yaroslavl by ambulance, she arrived home, saw her son’s room just as he had left it, and collapsed once more.

There was his bed, neatly made. There was his framed jersey, still propped up against the wall. And there was the old photo of the twin towers in Manhattan, framed and hanging above his bed.

ON OCT. 1, 1993, a new Yak-42 rolled off the assembly line in Smolensk. RA-42434, the 167th plane of its kind. Over the next 18 years it clocked 6,482 hours in the sky under four owners and countless pilots. It was aging when it arrived in Yaroslavl, but its career was far from over.

Eight days after that plane came off the line, Pavol Demitra stepped on the ice in an NHL game and scored the first of 304 goals in an 18-year pro career that would lead him on a journey from Ottawa to St. Louis, Los Angeles, Minnesota and Vancouver. At age 36, he too was aging, but his career was not yet over.

Three years before he boarded RA-42434, he suited up with the Vancouver Canucks as a three-time NHL all-star with a $4-million-a-year price tag. Then he injured his shoulder, and when he tried to return, he re-aggravated his rotator cuff and had to have surgery. When he healed, he didn’t return to the lineup, taking leave to be with his wife who had fallen ill with a heart condition that nearly took her life. When he finally suited up again, it was in his Slovakian jersey at the Vancouver Olympics, where he led the tournament in points. There he was, the national hero of a fading hockey power, the once and future captain of Slovakia, slowly gliding across the ice with grace as he teasingly stickhandled his way toward the Russian goal. The last man in a shootout victory. For that one moment, it appeared the all-star was back. Then he returned to the Canucks, played 28 games and tallied just three goals. By the end of the season the fans and the team were eager to see him go. With two young children-Lucas and Zara-and an ailing wife, he returned to Europe. While his family relocated to Slovakia, he signed with the nearby Railway Men. Two million dollars, tax-free. Take it one year at a time- why not?

But something happened to him in Yaroslavl, a renaissance of sorts. The Slovak scored 61 points in 54 games. A performance that left everyone believing there was more to accomplish. So he agreed in the summer of 2011 to return to Yaroslavl for one more year. With every break in the schedule, he would make the 2,000-kilometre journey from Yaroslavl to Bratislava to be with his family. They were always near to him. He had his children’s names tattooed on his arm.

On that September day, he stepped off the tarmac and boarded a plane that rolled out of a factory eight days before he scored his first NHL goal. And soon that Yak became the eighth plane of its kind to ferry the living to their place among the dead.

Hours later, Demitra’s friend, a staffer with the team, was called into a morgue to identify his remains and save those closer to him from the pain of having to stand in a room surrounded by tables topped with bodies resting under sheets. Then a doctor lifted one of those sheets and revealed the names-Lucas and Zara-tattooed on their father’s arm. There was nothing more anyone needed to see.

ON A RAINY SATURDAY IN YAROSLAVL, thousands of mourners lined the streets to bid farewell to those who perished in the crash. Amid their tears, the people screamed.

“Galimov, live for the whole team!”

Those who knew him believed he’d survive. He was young, 26, a fighter, the strongest of the men on board that flight. A Yaroslavl boy, born and raised. He was the showman; the last man off the ice on any given night; the joker who likened himself to a musketeer, removing his helmet after a goal, saluting the crowd with his helmet in his hand as if it were a chapeau, then blowing a kiss to his bride.

She was a former Lokomotiv cheerleader whom he had met in that arena on her prom night, now the mother of his two-year-old daughter. The woman with whom he dreamt of retiring to a villa in Italy. The woman he asked the policemen to notify that he’d been in a plane crash.

The day before, he’d walked the streets of Yaroslavl with Marina and their daughter, Kristina. It was a beautiful day, his wife remembers, filled with laughter from those who surrounded the man who never stopped joking. At home that evening, he kissed his daughter goodnight then held his wife tight as if, she now wonders, some part of him knew it would be their final night together. Then morning came and even the goodbye was rushed.

Three days after the crash, Alexander Galimov lay in a medically induced coma in a Moscow hospital. It was his wife’s 24th birthday, and she stood outside his hospital room, begging the doctors to let her see him. Pleading with them that she had travelled from Yaroslavl, that he was her husband and this was her birthday. Convincing them that, no matter how bad he looked, she wanted to see him. Wanted to speak to him. She got her wish. She sat by his side that day, watched as her unconscious husband held on. Two days later, as his teammates lay side-by-side in a Yaroslavl cemetery, a doctor called her.

“Your husband is dead,” he said.

AS THE DAYS PASSED, many wondered why this disaster had even happened. The Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, blamed the Yak, decreeing that Soviet planes were of antiquated design. Many blamed the government, saying the plane had been forced to take off in order to make way for the Russian president and other dignitaries arriving for the global policy summit. Then came the rumours. Before the first week was out, Russian tabloids were falsely reporting that the airport director (the one who had raced down the tarmac in his Volvo and who had slept that night in his office on a couch because he couldn’t go home, not with a disaster on his watch) had committed suicide to escape his guilt.

So many rumours and theories, but still no concrete explanation. And so they mourned, angry and in pain, bringing fresh carnations every day and laying them atop the graves of the victims of RA-42434’s final flight.

On the eighth day after the crash, some people from the village gathered by the river and pulled a large stone from the shallows, rinsed it clean, then placed on it a plaque with the names of the dead. On the same day, the priest from the church the colour of chalk, the one who had rung the bells into the night, carried a cross to the scarred shore and raised it into the sky, facing east toward the runway. Meanwhile, men stood on pavement next to the runway and pieced together the wreckage. For three weeks, they struggled to establish how it had happened. Why had this plane exploded less than a kilometre from where they now stood?

At the same time, more men gathered in a government building in Moscow and analyzed the black box, which had been pulled from the smouldering debris of the cockpit. In that building on a narrow street in the centre of Europe’s largest city, they listened to the voices of ghosts. Seated side-by-side in a cockpit, soon to rest side-by-side in a crowded cemetery on the outskirts of Moscow.

“Let’s go,” said the captain.

“Four-three-four is ready for takeoff,” the co-pilot radioed to the control tower.

“Permission given for flight.”

With three km of runway ahead, the Yak-42 began speeding down the tarmac. As the plane gathered momentum, the flight engineer read aloud from his instruments.

“The speed is rising,” he told his captain. “Takeoff data-normal. 130, 150, 170…”

At 185 km/h the front wheel lifted from the runway, but the rest of the aging Yak did not follow.

The captain ordered his crew to increase the power from the engines. But as they did, the speed decreased. And as they passed the point of no return, the captain ordered his co-pilot to adjust the rear stabilizer. If he could not force the nose up by sheer speed, he would do so by increasing the pitch on the tail wing.

“Take off,” the captain ordered. “Take off stabilizer.”

“What are you doing?” the co-pilot asked.

“Take off!” the captain shouted.

“Take off,” the flight engineer repeated.

As the plane rolled off the end of the runway, the captain swore. And as the plane sped through the grass, heading toward a nearby radio tower, the co-pilot screamed his captain’s name.


With the alarm bells ringing inside the cockpit, RA-42434 finally lifted from the grass. But the flight lasted mere seconds. The portside wing sliced through the airport’s radio antenna, and the plane banked right, its nose up in the air, its belly falling back down to earth.

Then the captain screamed, “We’re f—–!”

On Nov. 2-eight weeks after the accident-investigators led an auditorium packed with Russian journalists and a reporter from Sportsnet magazine through a blow-by-blow replay of the accident.

For the next two hours, the investigators criticized the pilots. They told those gathered that Yak-Service, the company that chartered the plane, was negligent in its training of the pilots. They said the pilots made a number of novice mistakes prior to takeoff. And then they made a fatal error. One pilot, if not both, had placed his foot on a braking pedal, slowing the plane’s wheels as it went down the runway. As the pilots kicked the engines into full power and struggled to pull the plane into the sky, more pressure was applied to the brakes. And as they adjusted the pitch on the rear stabilizer, they forced the nose to such an angle that the plane had no chance of flying.

It’s unlikely the pilots knew they were even pressing the brakes, the investigators claimed. It was a combination of inadequate training and a banned drug found in the co-pilot’s blood, a sedative meant to treat a neurological disorder that caused weakness and numbness in the hands and feet.

And just like that, the blame was buried along with the dead.

THREE MONTHS AFTER THE CRASH, the remnants of RA-42434 have been moved into a pile beside the runway. Exposed to the elements, but necessary to preserve, in some form anyway, in case anyone challenges the results of the investigation. ?In Moscow, Alexander Sizov, the lone survivor of the accident, recovers at home. Released from hospital eight weeks after the crash, the engineer has stayed away from the public eye. Meanwhile, his employer, Yak-Service, the company that paid the pilots and rented the plane, is out of business. Its principals have vanished. A simple message of condolence left on the company’s website, the closest anyone can get to an official response to the many questions left behind.

On the outskirts of Moscow, the families of the players, coaching staff and crew pay daily visits to Igor Trunov, one of Russia’s best-known lawyers. The lawyer is acting on their behalf, preparing a lawsuit against Yak-Service, the government and the insurance companies that are now refusing to pay out what’s owed to the families of the dead. They tell him they still don’t understand why their loved ones died. He tells them he doesn’t either. He has studied the results of the official investigation, but neither he nor anyone else knows why the pilots did not abort the takeoff. He can’t even get the government to officially disclose who owned the plane. “We might never know the answer to any of this, really,” he says. “The blame has already been placed. It’s on the dead. So why ask any more questions?” Ten years, he reckons, and trial after trial, before any of this is settled. And still, he says, there’s very little chance he’ll uncover any answers.

Two-hundred-and-fifty kilometres away, where the fire once burned, fishermen wade through the shallows and find pieces of clothes and metal. Fragments from a quick investigation. At the nearby church, the priest still rings the bells periodically for the dead. Meanwhile, the paramedic struggles at work. When she closes her eyes to sleep, the horrors from the day rush back. Then she sees Tkachenko’s hair, his eyes, his face. And she cries.

In the Muslim corner of a Tatar cemetery, on the outskirts of Yaroslavl, Marina Galimov cleans the site of her husband’s grave. The last of the Railway Men to die, he is buried next to his grandmother. His two-year-old daughter asks again and again, “When’s my father coming home?” Marina hasn’t the strength to tell her, he’s never coming back.

On the other side of town, Katerina Urychev, the single mother of an only child, stands in the doorway of her boy’s room. It remains as he left it. The silver bedspread, still neatly tucked. The childhood teddy bear, still sitting by the window. “He was all that I had,” she says. And then she walks back to the kitchen and weeps.

Near the centre of town, 14 bodies are buried in two rows, seven columns deep. Every day the families come, brush snow from the crosses, and lay food for the dead, as is the tradition. Not far from the cemetery is the arena, its outer walls decorated with letters from friends and drawings from schoolchildren. Fresh carnations lie atop the frozen carnations from yesterday, and the day before. Thousands of carnations, stacked against the walls of the arena, beneath the names and the photos of the dead.

Inside the arena, Maxim Zyuzyakin stands on the ice. The boy whose seat sat empty on the plane. He had been scratched from the lineup for the opening game, told to rest up and rejoin the Railway Men four days later in Moscow. An unlucky break of the luckiest kind. He’s now the captain of the Yaroslavl junior squad. Elevated to new heights, expected to lead as the team struggles to rebuild. “I don’t like to think about whether I was saved,” he says. “I don’t like to think about fate. I used to dream of playing somewhere else. Now I have no desire to leave.”

The KHL season is under way. Twenty-three teams continue to play. But there’s one team missing. “Practically every high-class team around the world had a connection to Lokomotiv,” says Vsevolod Kukushkin, a league adviser. “Everyone knew someone on that plane. It has been hard to bounce back. It was very hard to get players to play right after the crash. Hard to get players to want to come here. But it’s not dangerous here. A plane can crash anywhere. Reasonable people understand it’s not the league’s fault.”

On the other side of the world, Kristina Korolev walks around campus in Peoria, Ill., with her father’s photo still pinned to her shirt. She doesn’t want to be here anymore. Hates it now. A few weeks ago her mother boarded a plane bound for St. Louis. A small plane, 120 seats, similar in size to the one that carried her husband to his death. Sitting in her seat en route to a hockey game where her husband’s former team was honouring his memory, she broke into tears. “I could hear their voices, screaming in this plane. Screaming in my head.”

Back in Toronto, Vera Korolev wakes every morning and walks into her kitchen. She strikes a match and lights a lantern next to a photo of her husband. Then she sits down and cries. “I keep searching for the point in time when it could have changed,” she says. “When maybe we could have done something different and he wouldn’t have died. Maybe it was in Turks and Caicos, when he sat us down and asked what we thought. Maybe it was earlier. Maybe there never was a point in time when anything could have changed.”

When the day is done, she blows out the lantern. And then she walks past his pictures, heads upstairs to their bed and tries to sleep.

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