Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Saturday congratulated the lone survivor of a military plane crash as the death toll rose to 26 after the death of another cadet and the discovery of three more bodies. Zelensky traveled to the scene of the tragedy near the northeastern city of Kharkiv, where an Antonov AN-26 transport plane carrying 20 air force cadets and seven officers s ‘crashed during a training flight on Friday night.
“Ukraine has lost 26 worthy sons,” Zelensky said on Facebook, referring to cadets and officers from the Kharkiv National Air Force University.
“It is difficult to find words to express the pain of this loss,” he said, declaring Saturday a day of mourning.
The plane caught fire as it landed near a highway more than a mile from the Chuguiv military airbase.
An eyewitness told Reuters he saw a burning man flee from the wreckage. “Another car pulled up behind us. We took a fire extinguisher and ran with another driver to help him,” he said.
The death toll rose on Saturday after three more bodies were found under the charred remains of the plane and one of the two survivors died in hospital from extensive burns.
Zelensky visited the only survivor remaining in a military hospital in Kharkiv, posting a photo of the 20-year-old cadet lying in bed with his head and right arm bandaged.
He said the youngest, Vyacheslav Zolochevsky, “came to his senses near the wreckage of the AN-26”.
“The plane was destroyed, there was fire, darkness and bodies all around. One of the guys was on fire,” he said on Facebook, adding that Zolochevsky had rushed to try to save him.
The second cadet died in hospital, said the Ukrainian president, as he praised Zolochevsky for his “heroism”.
“Ukraine is proud of you! ” he said.
Doctors said Zolochevsky suffered a concussion but his life was not in danger.
Most of the cadets on board would be between 19 and 22 years old. Another cadet was not cleared to take the flight.
Zelensky said the cause of the crash should be quickly established and called for an “objective” investigation.
Investigators were looking at several possible causes of the crash, including technical malfunction, human error and poor maintenance of the aircraft.
SBU security said the plane was on a training flight but cadets were not involved in piloting it.
Security, citing preliminary information, said the pilot reported an engine failure and seven minutes later the plane touched down.
Defense Minister Andriy Taran said “the plane probably hit the ground with its wing” and then caught fire.
Citing preliminary information, the defense minister said that one of the sensors on the left engine had failed. He said the final conclusion will be drawn after authorities analyze the plane’s black boxes.
“Everything went according to plan: the plane was on a training flight for the cadets,” he said.
He said the instructor was at the controls and the cadets took turns to sit next to the pilot.
“According to preliminary findings, the cadets did not directly control the aircraft – the crew captain performed all flights,” the SBU said, according to the BBC.
Taran said the plane was manufactured in 1977 but could be used for three more years without needing repairs.
The plane made six takeoffs and five landings on Friday, he said. Officials said all flights of AN-26 planes would be suspended for now.
A number of foreign leaders, including Polish President Andrzej Duda, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, have expressed their condolences.
“We extend our sincere condolences to the families and loved ones of the cadets, officers and crew killed and injured in the An-26 plane crash,” said the US Embassy in Ukraine.