Ukrainian airplane crashes near Iran’s capital, killing 176
TEHRAN - The Associated Press/Anadolu Agency
A Ukrainian passenger jet carrying 176 people crashed on Jan. 8, just minutes after taking off from the Iranian capital's main airport, turning farmland on the outskirts of Tehran into fields of flaming debris and killing all on board.
The crash of Ukraine International Airlines came hours after Iran launched a ballistic missile attack on Iraqi bases housing U.S. soldiers, but both Ukrainian and Iranian officials said they suspected a mechanical issue brought down the Boeing 737-800 aircraft.
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy extended his condolences to the families of the victims.
His office said he had cut his visit to Oman short and was returning to Kyiv because of the crash. The country's Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk confirmed the casualty toll.
"Our task is to establish the cause of the crash of the Boeing and provide all necessary help to the families of the victims," said parliament speaker, Dmytro Razumkov, in a Facebook statement.
The plane had been delayed from taking off from Imam Khomeini International Airport by almost an hour.
It took off to the west, but never made it above 8,000 feet in the air, according to data from the flight-tracking website FlightRadar24.
The airline did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
It remains unclear what happened. Qassem Biniaz, a spokesman for Iran's Road and Transportation Ministry, said it appeared a fire struck one of its engines.
The pilot of the aircraft then lost control of the plane, sending it crashing into the ground, Biniaz said, according to the state-run IRNA news agency.
Hassan Razaeifar, the head of air crash investigation committee, said it appeared the pilot couldn't communicate with air-traffic controllers in Tehran in the last moments of the flight. He did not elaborate.
Ukrainian authorities have offered to help with the investigation of the plane crash. "We're preparing a group of specialists in order to help with the search operation and the investigation of the cause of the crash," Honcharuk said.
President Zelensky also instructed the country's attorney general to launch an investigation into the crash.
An investigative commission will be created with the participation of law enforcement and specialized agencies responsible for civil aviation, Zelensky said in a message posted on Facebook.
Zelensky also ordered an inspection of the entire civilian fleet of Ukraine's airlines and interrupted a visit to Oman to take personal control of the probe.
Vowing to explore all the possibilities, Zelensky added: “Regardless of the conclusions about the causes of the disaster in Iran, the entire civilian fleet will be checked."
The Attorney General's Office confirmed it opened a criminal case for "violation of traffic safety rules or operation of air transport that caused the death of people."
"The purpose of the investigation is to establish the facts that led to the death, according to preliminary data, of 167 passengers and nine crew members," the office's press service said in a statement.
Nationals of seven countries were aboard, according to Ukrainian Foreign Minister Vladimir Pristayko: 82 Iranians, 63 Canadians, 11 Ukrainians, 10 Swedes, four Afghans, three Germans and three British citizens.
The plane, fully loaded with fuel for its 2,300-kilometer (1,430-mile) flight, slammed into farmland near the town of Shahedshahr on the outskirts of Tehran. Videos taken immediately after the crash show blazes lighting up the darkened fields before dawn.
Resident Din Mohammad Qassemi said he had been watching the news about the Iranian ballistic missile attack on U.S. forces in Iraq in revenge for the killing of Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani when he heard the crash.
"I heard a massive explosion and all the houses started to shake. There was fire everywhere," he told The Associated Press.
"At first I thought (the Americans) have hit here with missiles and went in the basement as a shelter. After a while, I went out and saw a plane has crashed over there. Body parts were lying around everywhere.''
The plane carried 167 passengers and nine crew members from different nations on its flight to the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, Biniaz said. The crash killed all on board, Iranian emergency officials and Ukraine's Foreign Ministry said.
The majority of the passengers were Iranian nationals, Russia's RIA Novosti agency reported, citing Iranian authorities.
Staff at the Boryspil airport in Kyiv, where the plane was headed, told the AP that passengers on this flight are usually Iranian students coming back to Ukraine after winter holidays.
AP journalists who reached the crash site saw a wide field of field of debris scattered across farmland, the dead laying among shattered pieces of the aircraft.
Their possessions, a child's cartoon-covered electric toothbrush, a stuffed animal, luggage and electronics, stretched everywhere.
Rescuers in masks shouted over the noise of hovering helicopters as they worked. They quickly realized there would be no survivors.
"The only thing that the pilot managed to do was steer the plane towards a soccer field near here instead of a residential area back there,'' witness Aref Geravand said.
"It crashed near the field and in a water canal.''
Iran to keep the black box
Meanwhile, Iranian authorities have found the black boxes of the crashed plane, according to Iranian media.
According to the semi-official Mehr news agency, Ali Abedzadeh, head of the Iranian Civil Aviation Organization said the cause of the crash has yet to be determined.
Abedzadeh also announced that his country would not give the black boxes to Boeing, saying that they are considering to hand them over to a third country.
The Boeing 737-800 is a very common single-aisle, twin-engine jetliner used for short to medium-range flights. Thousands of the planes are used by airlines around the world.
Introduced in the late 1990s, it is an older model than the Boeing 737 MAX, which has been grounded for nearly 10 months following two deadly crashes.
A number of 737-800 aircraft have been involved in deadly accidents over the years.
In March 2016, a FlyDubai 737-800 from Dubai crashed while trying to land at Rostov-on-Don airport in Russia, killing 62 onboard. Another 737-800 flight from Dubai, operated by Air India Express, crashed in May 2010 while trying to land in Mangalore, India, killing more than 150 onboard.
Chicago-based Boeing Co. was “aware of the media reports out of Iran and we are gathering more information,” spokesman Michael Friedman told The Associated Press.
Boeing, like other airline manufacturers, typically assists in crash investigations. However, that effort in this case could be affected by the U.S. sanctions campaign in place on Iran since President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers in May 2018.
Both Airbus and Boeing had been in line to sell billions of dollars of aircraft to Iran over the deal, which saw Tehran limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. But Trump’s decision halted the sales.
Under decades of international sanctions, Iran’s commercial passenger aircraft fleet has aged, with air accidents occurring regularly for domestic carriers in recent years, resulting in hundreds of casualties.