TEHRAN: Bereaved friends and families joined in mourning Wednesday after a Ukrainian airliner crashed near Tehran killing all 176 on board, as harrowing details started emerging about the victims, most of them from Iran and Canada.
Both Canada and the United States called for a full investigation to determine the cause of the crash, which came shortly after Tehran launched missiles at American troops in Iraq in response to the killing of a top Iranian general.
There was no immediate indication that foul play may have caused the Ukraine International Airlines (UIA) plane to go down, soon after take-off, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned against speculating on the crash causes.
Search-and-rescue teams combed through the smoking wreckage of the Boeing 737 flight to Kiev, but officials said there was no hope of finding survivors.
According to Ukraine, 82 Iranians, 63 Canadians, 10 Swedes, four Afghans, three Germans and three Britons were on board, as well as 11 Ukrainians – including nine crew.
Several dozen came from the Iranian community around Edmonton, capital of Alberta state in western Canada, where resident Payman Parseyan described the tragedy as “devastating.”
“Every one of our community members was touched in one way or another,” Parseyan told Canada’s national broadcaster CBC.
Footage released by Iranian state media showed a field on fire and the smouldering aircraft remains.
Body bags were lined up on the ground, and the passengers’ personal items – including luggage, clothes, a Santa Claus doll and a boxing glove – were scattered in the debris.
Carrier UIA released a list of the names and birth years of passengers. At least 25 were under the age of 18.
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei offered his “sincere condolences” to the bereaved families, in a post on Twitter.
The head of Iran’s civil aviation organization, Ali Abedzadeh, also said Iran would cooperate with Ukraine, but not send the black boxes to the US, with which it has no diplomatic relations.
Without naming Iran directly, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement calling for “complete cooperation with any investigation into the cause of the crash.”
According to aviation experts, only a handful of countries are capable of analyzing black boxes – notably Britain, France, Germany and the United States.
Canada Prime Minister Justin Trudeau vowed to ensure the cause of the crash was found.
“Our government will continue to work closely with its international partners to ensure that this crash is thoroughly investigated, and that Canadians’ questions are answered,” he said.
Canada is home to a large Iranian diaspora, and UIA offers relatively inexpensive flights between Toronto and Tehran, with a layover in Kiev.
The Edmonton victims included a couple of university professors and their two young girls, aged 9 and 14.
“How can someone put words to that?” said Parseyan, who counted the family among his friends.
“Many of these people were international students,” he said. “They worked tirelessly to get to where they were, all to lose it like this. It’s terrible.”
Hamed Esmaeilion, an Iranian-born dentist, told the Globe and Mail he had been due to pick up his wife and nine-year-old daughter at Toronto airport on Wednesday.
Instead he was heading to Tehran in search of answers after both perished in the crash.
“I have to go. I’m alone here,” he said.
UIA, the ex-Soviet country’s privately owned main carrier, said flight PS752 took off from Tehran airport at 6:10 am and disappeared from radars minutes later.
It slammed into farmland at Khalaj Abad, in Shahriar county, about 45 kilometres (just under 30 miles) northwest of the airport, Iranian state media said.
A video aired by Iran’s state broadcaster appeared to show the plane already on fire as it fell.
The airline said the Boeing 737 had been built in 2016 and checked only two days before the accident. It was UIA’s first fatal crash.
“The plane was in working order,” company president Yevgeniy Dykhne told a briefing in Kiev where he choked back tears. “It was one of our best planes with a wonderful crew.”
UIA vice president Igor Sosnovskiy likewise said chances of a crew error were “minimal.”
The airline is part owned by Igor Kolomoisky, a controversial Ukrainian businessman with ties to the country’s president Zelensky – who promised a complete probe while urging “everyone to keep from speculating and putting forth unconfirmed theories.”
“There is a lot of speculation at the moment it has been shot down – I think that is not going to be the case at all,” said Stephen Wright, a professor of aircraft systems at Tampere University in Finland.
“It could be a bomb or it could be some sort of catastrophic breakup of the aircraft.”
The aircraft was not one of the MAX models fitted with anti-stall systems that have been linked with two other recent crashes of Boeing 737s.
Boeing said it was ready to help in any way needed. - AFP