Fifty-two Russian children were on the Bashkirian Airlines charter heading for a resort near Barcelona to celebrate the beginning of the summer holiday. Their chartered Tupolev 154 collided at 35,000 feet over southern Germany with a Boeing 757 cargo jet operated by DHL International.
As CBS News Correspondent Allen Pizzey reports, miraculously no one on the ground was killed or even hurt when the debris plummeted to earth across 20 miles of German countryside.
There was immediate controversy over how the collision happened, with Swiss authorities — whose control system was directing both flights — initially claiming the Russian pilot responded only after three warnings, the first coming two minutes before the crash. It was subsequently learned that only one Swiss controller was on duty at the time of the collision.
Swiss air traffic control, which was in charge of the flight path of both planes, initially said it had given the Tupolev-154 roughly two minutes advance notice and that the pilot did not begin descending to avoid the cargo jet until a third request.
The Swiss revised their account after the German government agency for air accident investigations said the Russian pilot was given only about 50 seconds warning to change altitude and reacted after a second notice.
The German account of the incident said the Russian pilot changed course about 25 seconds before the collision 36,000 feet over Lake Constance.
Anton Maag, chief of the control tower at Zurich, said the initial warning, while only about a minute before the crash, "wasn't irresponsible but fairly tight."
It was Maag who initially said the warning was given two minutes before the crash and that the Russian pilot only reacted after a third was issued.
At the same time the Russian jet began moving lower, the cargo plane's automatic collision warning system issued an order to descend, and pilots are obliged to follow these instructions, Maag said.
The director of Bashkirian Airlines, Nikolai Odegov, said Swiss air traffic controllers were to blame for the accident, the Interfax news agency reported Tuesday evening.
"My theory is that it is the fault of the air traffic controllers, they put the planes on the same path," Odegov said. "There were no reasons to say that the pilots didn't handle the plane properly."
The head of Moscow's Domodedovo airport, from which the Bashkirian Airlines jet originated, also denied the Russian pilot failed to follow directions.
Maag said the air traffic controller in charge at the time was working alone as his partner took a break because of the light air traffic. Five planes were in the sector they were monitoring at the time, which included the two crashed planes.
By Tuesday afternoon, investigators had recovered 26 bodies — some still strapped into seats — and had located the flight data recorder from the Tu-154. Twenty-two boats patrolled the waters looking for flotsam or telltale jet fuel slicks. Investigators said they located both planes' flight data recorders and the cockpit voice recorder of the cargo jet.
Because one of the planes was a U.S.-made Boeing, American experts will join Russian, Swiss and German investigators to sift through the wreckage and examine the contents of the black boxes to try to determine exactly what went wrong.
Wreckage and baggage was found at 57 sites, including corn and wheat fields, roadsides and next to houses, said Erwin Hedger, police chief of Baden-Wuerttemberg.
The parents of the children were high-ranking officials in Bashkortostan, a Russian republic in the southern Ural Mountains. Abas Galyamov of the republic's Moscow mission said the children were headed for a beach holiday on the Costa Dorada near Barcelona. The children were the best students at the UNESCO-affiliated school in Ufa, the Bashkirian capital.
In Russia, one mother wept as she described learning of the disaster.
"We thought on Sunday that the group was already enjoying the sun," said Svetlana Beglova, whose son was on the plane because he missed an earlier flight.
Din Uzhin, a group leader for the students, told The Associated Press he was supposed to have flown with them but did not get his Spanish visa and stayed behind in Moscow.
"The parents of the children are calling nonstop asking whether I know anything about the fate of their children," he said Tuesday. "And I have to say time and again: Your children were on that plane."
Witnesses said they heard rolling thunder and saw an orange glow and fireballs resembling comets in the night sky.
A black rain of wreckage then poured down on the northern shore of this picturesque lake in southwestern Germany. Eyewitnesses described how the collision turned this region of chocolate-box beauty into a scene from hell in seconds.
"We came across five bodies just lying in the field next to each other," said Wolfgang Steiner, gardener at a children's home just 200 yards from where the tail section of the Tupolev 154 airliner came crashing down.
"One had his neck broken, one was missing a foot but there was no blood. I kept saying to myself, 'why is there no blood?' They were adults, but they looked so small lying in that field."
Families along the shore of Lake Constance were counting their blessings at special church services late Tuesday as they recalled how tones of flaming aircraft wreckage crashing out of the sky missed their homes by a whisker.
"In the glow of the fire I saw wreckage falling out of the sky. It looked like black rain," said Klaus-Dieter Schindler, a janitor at a school in the village of Owingen.
Debris was scattered over an area of more than two square miles around Ueberlingen, a resort town of 20,000.
Airline officials said many of the passengers on the flight had the same surname, indicating families may have lost more than one relative.
The young passengers were looking forward to two weeks of fun and sun at a four-star Spanish hotel by the Mediterranean.
Everything was ready at the Estival Park Hotel in the seaside resort of Salou. The tragedy stunned staff at the hotel in the modern Costa Dorada beach resort near Barcelona.
"We were expecting 43 children between eight and 16. Everything was ready and the coach driver was waiting at the airport. It's a terrible tragedy," said a spokesman for the hotel.