SOCHI, Russia, Oct. 8 (JTA) — Dr. Alexander Maslakov, the director of the local morgue in this Black Sea resort, had seen many gruesome sights in his life.
“But I have never seen anything like this. It is indescribable,” he said, referring to the victims of last week’s airline disaster over the Black Sea.
Among the 78 victims of the Oct. 4 crash were many Russian-born Israeli citizens going to visit family and friends in Siberia.
Many of those brought in to identify the remains of their loved ones fainted on the spot.
Later, they sat listlessly on benches near the building, oblivious to the lovely seaside setting. Many stared at the ground, unable to respond to questions from a reporter.
Those who could speak were nonetheless in a stupor. Many said they could not decide if they would bury the remains — assuming they could be positively identified — in Russia or in Israel.
In subsequent days, family members were flown to Sochi — where the investigation into the disaster is being conducted — from Israel and Siberia.
Rabbi Aryeh Edelkopf said he did not faint when he entered the morgue last Friday morning.
But, he told JTA, he felt horror — not only at the carnage created by the air disaster, but at the great responsibility that had suddenly fallen on his shoulders.
Edelkopf, a 24-year-old Lubavitch emissary, came here some six months ago to care for the needs of Sochi’s 2,500- member Jewish community.
He previously had worked as a rabbi in Brazil and Hong Kong — but until now he had never performed what is known in Israel by the acronym “zaka,” meaning “identification of the victims of a disaster.”
Suddenly he faced religious questions to which he did not know the answers.
How, according to Jewish law, should a body be buried if only a small portion of it remains? How should the ritual purification be performed?
Edelkopf consulted with Lubavitch headquarters in Moscow, where Berel Lazar, one of Russia’s two chief rabbis, tried to provide help over the phone.
“Then, by Sunday, I felt I had to come myself,” Lazar told JTA.
After flying in to Sochi, Lazar immediately headed to the morgue, where a brigade of Israeli investigators, along with a team from Israel’s army rabbinate, had arrived several hours earlier Sunday.
The Israeli investigators had come to help their Russian counterparts study the remains of the TU-154 aircraft to identify the cause of the explosion that sent the plane plunging into the Black Sea.
Russian sources told JTA that by Sunday afternoon the reason was 95 percent clear: The plane had been brought down by a surface-to-air C-200 missile launched during a Ukrainian military exercise near the Crimea.
The missile mistakenly “re-guided itself” in the air, the Ukrainian launchers lost control of it and the rocket, instead of hitting an exercise target, brought down the Sibir Airlines flight, the sources said.
Ukrainian officials, including President Leonid Kuchma, denied that their forces had shot down the plane, saying the missile did not have the range to reach the airliner.
But Lev Shchogolev, a regional representative for the Jewish Agency for Israel, scoffed when he heard that.
“I talked to missile guys here. They said there was absolutely no problem for the C-200 to hit the plane at this range,” he said. “The Ukrainians and the Russians just don’t want the truth, which is a great scandal.”
As far as Nura Klochko and Olga Latushkina were concerned, the cause of the disaster did not matter.
Klochko, who comes from Chernigov in Ukraine, told JTA that she lost her nephew. Latushkina, from Irkutsk in Siberia, lost her daughter-in-law.
The Jewish Agency helped fly Israeli relatives here on several charter flights. The agency also planned to set up a 24-hour help center in Sochi.
Another organization, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, responded to the disaster by operating an information center for relatives and rendering assistance to victims’ families. The Joint also helped gather teams of psychologists to help relatives cope with their grief.
By Monday, the team of Israeli experts had identified six of the 14 bodies retrieved so far from the wreckage.
“But if even only one Jew had been there, we would have had to come and do what could be done,” Zvi Black, of Israel’s army rabbinate, told JTA.
At a brief commemoration ceremony Sunday, Black intoned the Kaddish for those who died in the disaster.