The Tu-154 model plane, which belonged to the Russian defense ministry, crashed two minutes after leaving the southern city of Adler at 5.40am (2.40am GMT). There were no survivors.
The military plane was carrying soldiers, reporters and 64 members of the famed Alexandrov military music ensemble who were to perform for Russian troops in Syria as part of New Year celebrations.
Roman Valutov, 29, was in the list of the aircraft passengers, but did not board the doomed flight as his passport expired in July.
He said: ‘I was going through immigration and the girl there said: ‘Are you joking? Your passport expired back in July.’
‘I hadn’t realised. She told me to wait. I stood there worrying if I’d be allowed to fly, and in a few minutes I was told: ‘You’re not going anywhere.’
‘I was nervous about the mistake over my passport, but I went home.
‘I was there at 3.30 am and afterwards people start calling me, asking if I was alive. I checked and found myself in the list of the dead.
‘I was crying. My friends and relatives are shocked.’
Soloist Vadim Ananyev, whose wife just delivered a baby and pleaded with him to remain at home to help, also avoided boarding the flight. The couple have three small children.
He said: ‘I feel as if I were hit over the head. I still can’t believe it. They are telling me now I was born with a silver spoon.’
Twelve bodies have been recovered off the coast of Sochi as a frantic search operation continues to find the missing.
The cause of the Christmas Day crash wasn’t immediately known, but some experts pointed at a terror attack as a possibility – a scenario rejected by Russian officials.
Viktor Ozerov, head of the defence affairs committee at the upper house of Russian parliament, said he ‘totally excluded’ terrorism as a possible cause of the crash because the plane was operated by the military.
However, some experts contested Ozerov’s claim, saying the crew’s failure to report a malfunction pointed at a possible terror attack.
‘Possible malfunctions… certainly wouldn’t have prevented the crew from reporting them,’ Vitaly Andreyev, a former senior Russian air traffic controller, told news agency RIA Novosti, adding that it points at an ‘external impact’.
Russia’s transport minister said all causes were being considered, including a terror attack.
The plane, a Soviet-era design first introduced in the 1970s, had been on a routine flight to Russia’s Hmeimim airbase in western Syria, which has been used to launch air strikes in Moscow’s military campaign supporting its ally President Bashar al-Assad in the country’s devastating civil war.
Among the 84 passengers on the plane were 64 members of the Alexandrov Ensemble, the army’s official musical group internationally known as the Red Army Choir, who were travelling to Syria to participate in New Year celebrations at the airbase.
The choir sang ‘Get Lucky’ at the opening of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games that Russia hosted in Sochi, becoming an instant online sensation.
Ralina Gilmanova, 22, and her fiancé Mikhail, who were members of the Alexandrov Ensemble, were also killed.
The young couple were engaged last year and due to marry soon.
A three-year-old boy was orphaned by the crash after his parents Oleg and Ekaterina Korzanov, dancers in the Red Army Choir, died in the crash.
The boy, Artem, who will be four in February, was staying with relatives.
Singer Alexander Shutko, 30, posted a haunting last photo minutes before the doomed flight crashed in the Black Sea.
His sister, Emma, said: ‘Alexander called me and said ‘we are already on board, taking off in 15 minutes, I’ll call you when we stop in Sochi.
‘But he didn’t call us. We tried to contact him but his phone was out of coverage.’
She said he had been promised a soloist’s role in the choir, that saw 64 of its members killed in the crash.
She said: ‘He was so happy about his new job. He was promised a career of a soloist, he had a rare and beautiful voice.
He was engaged to Yulia, who wrote: ‘My love, my life, you are the best in this world, I always told you this! Rest in peace.’
As word of the crash spread on Sunday, people placed bouquets of flowers outside the ensemble’s Moscow headquarters.
‘We all loved this ensemble,’ said Moscow resident Mark Novikov. They are our brothers, our friends, our colleagues.’
Pavel Kogan, the director of Moscow State Academic Symphonic Orchestra, described the choir as ‘a symbol of the country’ and said the loss of the artistes was ‘a nightmare’.
Nine journalists were among the passengers, with state-run channels Pervy Kanal, NTV and Zvezda saying they each had three staff onboard the flight.
There were also eight soldiers, two civil servants, and an NGO member.
There were also eight crew members on board.
Yelizaveta Glinka, a prominent charity activist and humanitarian worker who served on the Kremlin human rights council, was among the dead.
Mikhail Fedotov, who heads the council, said Glinka was travelling to Syria to bring medication to a university hospital near the airbase.
Anton Gubankov, the chief of the Directorate of Culture of the Russian Defense Ministry, was also killed.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said President Vladimir Putin was being kept updated on the search operation.
Putin said Russia will observe a national day of mourning tomorrow.
A spokesman for the defence ministry said: ‘Fragments of the Tu-154 plane of the Russian defence ministry were found 1.5 kilometres from the Black Sea coast of the city of Sochi at a depth of 50 to 70 metres. No survivors have been spotted.
‘Four ships, four helicopters, one aircraft and drones are involved in the search and rescue operation. Six ships and vessels of the Black Sea fleet, remotely operated submersibles and 63 divers have been additionally sent to the crash area. Fifty more divers from other fleets will be brought to the crash area in about an hour,’ the ministry added.
Deputy Defence Minister Pavel Popov has flown to Adler to look into the circumstances surrounding the crash.
The plane underwent routine maintenance in September and was flown by an experienced pilot, according to the defence ministry. The aircraft had been in service since 1983 and flown some 7,000 hours since.
A source told the Interfax agency the plane had not sent an SOS signal. An audio recording played on Russian media and said to be of the final conversation between air traffic controllers and the plane showed no sign of any difficulties being faced by the crew.
Russia’s Investigative Committee said a criminal probe had been launched to determine whether violations of air transportation safety had led to the crash.
Investigators are currently questioning the technical personnel responsible for preparing the plane for take-off, the committee said.
A security source indicated the plane had crashed because of a technical malfunction or a pilot error.
Russia’s official weather forecast agency said conditions near the airport were ‘normal, easy,’ the Interfax news agency reported.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said: ‘This awful tragedy has claimed the lives of people who were energetic and had plans. Among those killed are journalists, servicemen and musicians of the renowned Alexandrov ensemble. They flew to Syria with a very benevolent and peaceful mission.
‘The circumstances of the incident will be thoroughly investigated, and everyone affected by this tragedy will receive the necessary assistance.’
A Russian jet was previously shot down in the Latakia region in November 2015.
In that incident, Su-24 was hit by air-to-air missiles fired by Turkish F-16s over the Syrian region.