A Ukrainian airliner carrying 176 people crashed on the outskirts of Tehran during a takeoff attempt Wednesday hours after Iran launched its missile attack on U.S. forces, scattering flaming debris and passengers’ belongings across farmland and killing everyone on board.
The Iranian military disputed any suggestion the plane had been blown out of the sky by a missile, and Iranian aviation authorities said they suspected a mechanical problem brought down the 3 1/2-year-old Boeing 737. Ukrainian officials initially agreed but later backed away and declined to offer a cause while the investigation is going on.
The Ukraine International Airlines jet was en route to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv with 167 passengers and nine crew members from several countries, including 82 Iranians, at least 63 Canadians and 11 Ukrainians, according to officials.
Many of the passengers were believed to be international students attending universities in Canada; they were making their way back to Toronto by way of Kyiv after visiting with family during the winter break. The manifest included several teenagers and children, some as young as 1 or 2.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy cut short a visit to Oman to return to Kyiv and said a team of Ukrainian experts would go to Tehran to help investigate the crash.
“Our priority is to find the truth and everyone responsible for the tragedy,” he wrote in a Facebook statement.
In Canada, where the crash ranked among the worst losses of life for Canadians in an aviation disaster, the flag over Parliament in Ottawa was lowered to half-staff, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the country is “shocked and saddened.” He vowed the government will work to “ensure that this crash is thoroughly investigated and that Canadians’ questions are answered.”
Major world airlines Wednesday rerouted flights crossing the Middle East to avoid danger amid escalating tensions between the U.S. and Iran, and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration barred American flights from certain Persian Gulf airspace, warning of the “potential for miscalculation or misidentification” of civilian aircraft.
The plane had been delayed from taking off from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport by almost an hour. It never made it above 8,000 feet, crashing just minutes after takeoff, according to data from the flight-tracking website FlightRadar24.
Qassem Biniaz, a spokesman for Iran’s Road and Transportation Ministry, said it appeared a fire erupted in one of its engines and the pilot lost control of the plane, according to the state-run IRNA news agency. The news report did not explain how Iranian authorities knew that.
Gen. Abolfazl Shekarchi, spokesman for the Iranian armed forces, was quoted by the semiofficial Fars news agency as denying the plane has been brought down by a missile.
“The rumours about the plane are completely false and no military or political expert has confirmed it,” he said. He said the rumours were “psychological warfare” by the government’s opponents.
Authorities said they found the plane’s so-called black boxes, which record cockpit conversations and instrument data. But it was not immediately clear how much access to the information the Iranians would allow.
Aviation experts were skeptical about Iran’s initial claim that the plane was brought down by a mechanical problem.
“I don’t see how they would have known that so quickly,” said John Hansman, an aeronautics professor at MIT. “They hadn’t had time to look at the flight data recorder. They probably hadn’t had time to investigate the physical wreckage of the engines. How do you know it was a mechanical issue versus a surface-to-air missile that went in the engine?”
Many planes have systems that send huge amounts of technical data, including potential problems with the engines or other key systems, to the airline and the manufacturer. But it was unclear whether Ukraine International had paid to download that information automatically during flights, or how much data from such a short flight would tell.
A Boeing spokesman declined to say whether the company obtained any information about the jet during its ill-fated flight.
The Associated Press