Iran has blamed technical failure and an engine fire for a plane crash which killed 177 people near Tehran today but is refusing to hand over the recovered black boxes to Boeing or the US.
The Boeing 737 jet came down just minutes after take-off from Imam Khomeini International Airport early this morning, hours after Iran launched missile strikes on US bases in Iraq in revenge for Qassem Solemani’s death.
Three Britons and 63 Canadians were among the 168 passengers and nine crew on board the Ukrainian International Airlines flight to Kyiv. There were no survivors.
Iran is blaming ‘technical difficulties’ and says the pilot lost control after a fire struck one of the plane’s engines, but said the crew had not reported an emergency and is refusing to say what will happen to the black boxes.
Video footage appeared to show the plane already burning in the night sky before it crashed, while pictures at the crash site showed the fuselage peppered with holes.
The Ukrainian embassy in Tehran initially stated that the crash had been caused by an engine failure rather than terrorism or a missile attack, but later rescinded that claim.
The Boeing plane was less than four years old and had been checked just two days earlier, with ‘one of our best crews’ manning the aircraft, a Ukrainian airline official said.
The disaster deals a further blow to Boeing which was thrown into crisis by two plane crashes in October 2018 and March 2019 which killed a combined 346 people.
French jet engine manufacturer CFM said any speculation about a technical failure was ‘premature’.
The crash sparked fresh alarm in the already tense Middle East and a series of airlines have announced they will stop flying over Iranian airspace.
The Ukrainian foreign ministry revealed there were 82 Iranians, 63 Canadians and three Britons on flight PS752, along with 11 Ukrainians, 10 Swedes, four Afghans and four Germans. The first British victim was named as 40-year-old Mohammad Reza Kadkhoda-Zadeh, who ran a dry cleaning business near Brighton.
Canada is home to a large Iranian Diaspora community and UIA offers discount flights between Tehran and Toronto, with transit in Kyiv.
Today Boeing declared the air disaster a ‘tragic event’ and offered its ‘heartfelt thoughts’ to the 177 passengers and crew onboard the plane.
‘We are ready to assist in any way needed,’ the airline said in a statement.
The jet which crashed was a Boeing 737-800 – a very common single-aisle, twin-engine jetliner used for short to medium-range flights. Thousands of 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 the two deadly crashes.
According to flight-tracking data from FlightRadar24, the jet which crashed in Iran reached an altitude of 7,925ft before tracking of the flight suddenly ended after three minutes.
The plane had been delayed from taking off from Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran by almost an hour.
The jet was new and had been checked two days ago, the Ukrainian airline said.
‘The plane was in working order,’ UIA company president Yevgeniy Dykhne told a briefing in Kyiv where he choked back tears.
‘It was one of our best planes with a wonderful crew.’
It was the Kyiv-based carrier’s first fatal accident, and it said it was doing everything possible to establish what had happened.
Just hours before the crash, the US Federal Aviation Administration had banned US airlines from flying over Iran, Iraq and the waters of the Persian Gulf due to the Middle East crisis.
Television footage showed debris and smouldering engine parts were strewn across a field, and rescue workers with face masks retrieving bodies of the victims.
After dawn had broken, photos published by Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency showed rescue officials in a farm field, with what appeared to be pieces of the aircraft laying nearby.
Rescue workers carried body bags and the passengers’ personal items – including cases, clothes, a Santa Claus doll, English-language books and a boxing glove – were lying amidst the debris.
‘The fire is so heavy that we cannot (do) any rescue… we have 22 ambulances, four bus ambulances and a helicopter at the site,’ Pirhossein Koulivand, head of Iran’s emergency services, told Iranian state television.
The Ukrainian embassy in Iran initially issued a statement saying: ‘According to preliminary data the plane crashed due to engine failure for technical reasons. As of now, versions of a terrorist attack or missile attack are ruled out.’
However, that claim had been deleted from the embassy website by Wednesday lunchtime, with an updated statement saying merely that the causes of the crash were under investigation.
Any previous comments about the cause were ‘not official’, the embassy said.
Iranian media quoted an aviation official as saying the pilot of the airliner did not declare an emergency.
Qassem Biniaz, a spokesman for Iran’s Road and Transportation Ministry, said it appeared a fire struck one of the plane’s 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.
An investigation team was at the site of the crash in southwestern outskirts of Tehran, Iran’s civil aviation spokesman Reza Jafarzadeh said.
‘After taking off from Imam Khomeini international airport it crashed between Parand and Shahriar,’ Jafarzadeh said.
‘An investigation team from the national aviation department was dispatched to the location after the news was announced.’
Iran’s English-language broadcaster Press TV cited the Imam Khomeini International Airport spokesman as saying the crash was caused by ‘technical difficulties’.
Critics have questioned the Iranian account, calling it the ‘fastest investigation in aviation history’ – and said the Boeing 737 has a largely outstanding safety record with no recent history of an engine failure of this kind.
Iran says it has found the plane’s black boxes but will not give them to planemaker Boeing or the United States.
Ali Abedzadeh, the head of Tehran’s civil aviation organisation, said it was not clear which country Iran would send the box to so that its data could be analysed.
Pictures at the scene appeared to show unexplained holes in the charred fuselage.
State media reported that the plane caught fire after crashing, but a video aired by the state broadcaster appeared to show the plane already on fire as it fell from the night sky.
Another theory is that the plane could have collided with a military drone before crashing.
Ilya Kusa, a Ukrainian international affairs expert, said amid the US-Iranian tensions ‘there were lots of them in the sky’ immediately after the rocket attacks.
Russian military pilot Vladimir Popov said: ‘It could have been an unmanned reconnaissance aircraft, which are small in size and poorly visible on radars.
‘A plane in a collision could get significant damage and even catch fire in the air.’
Another Russian expert Alexander Romanov, an air safety specialist, told TV 360 he suspected engine problems possibly caused by overloading.
‘Just a second before the main explosion, which occurred at a very low altitude, there was a flash, possibly an engine flash,’ he said.
Today a series of airlines including British Airways and Air France have responded to the crash by routing their flights away from Iranian airspace, while German carrier Lufthansa said it was cancelling its daily route from Frankfurt to Tehran.
A British Airways spokeswoman declined to comment on exact routings, telling MailOnline: ‘We are in constant contact with our partners around the world to assess the security of our routes, and will always take action where appropriate.
‘We would never operate a flight unless it was safe to do so.’
Malaysia Airlines said that ‘due to recent events,’ its planes would avoid Iranian airspace, and Singapore Airlines also said that its flights to Europe would be rerouted to avoid Iran.
Ukraine International Airlines said it had indefinitely suspended flights to Tehran after the crash.
The rerouted flights were causing delays of up to an hour for passengers travelling over the Middle East.
The rescue group Red Crescent said teams were assisted by soldiers and firefighters in the effort to recover bodies.
‘Obviously it is impossible that passengers’ on flight PS-752 are alive, Red Crescent head Morteza Salimi told semi-official news agency ISNA.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky voiced his condolences in a message from Oman.
‘Terrible news from the Middle East,’ he said. ‘This morning, after taking off from the Imam Khomeini International Airport (Tehran), a passenger plane of Ukraine International Airlines crashed near the airport.
‘According to preliminary data, all passengers and crew members were killed. Our embassy clarifies the information about the circumstances of the tragedy and the lists of casualties.
‘My sincere condolences to the families and friends of all passengers and crew members.’
Zelensky ordered the creation of a crisis team to handle the accident including top ministers and managed by the country’s national security agency.
The agency said it has information about 168 passengers who had checked in for the flight as well as nine crew members, putting the total estimated number of people on the plane at 177. (Mail)
Breaking down the numbers, officials said there were 82 Iranians, 63 Canadians and three Britons on flight PS752, along with 11 Ukrainians, 10 Swedes, four Afghans and four Germans.
Canada is home to a large Ukrainian and Iranian diaspora.
The first British victim was today named as father-of-one Mohammad Reza Kadkhoda-Zadeh, 40, who ran a dry cleaning business in East Sussex.
He is understood to have travelled to Iran to see family over the Christmas period and was returning to the UK via Ukraine.
The pilot was named as Vladimir Gaponenko who had 11,000 hours of experience.
Second pilot Serhiy Khomenko had 7,600 hours flying time – but unusually also on board was airline instructor Alexey Naumkin with 12,000 hours experience.
Flight attendant Maria Mikityuk, 24, was described as ‘a very bright, beautiful, cheerful and sincere woman’ hailing from Ivano-Frankivsk in Ukraine.
Her colleague Valeriia Ovcharuk was originally from Luhansk in rebel-held eastern Ukraine.
Another flight attendant, Denis Lykhno, was described as ‘a great guy and a good friend’ who was remembered for ‘learning everything in theist week’ to pass exams.
Officials in Tehran said 15 children were among the passengers. The semi-official news agency ISNA said 13 were students from Tehran’s Sharif University, the most prestigious in the country.
A UK Foreign Office spokesman said: ‘We are deeply saddened by the loss of life in the plane crash in Iran overnight.
‘We are urgently seeking confirmation about how many British nationals were on board and will do all we can to support any families affected.’
Zelensky’s 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.
The Ukrainian nationals included two passengers and nine crew members. Airline officials said most of the passengers were transiting through Kyiv to other destinations.
‘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 airline said it was notifying passengers’ families and working with aviation authorities ‘to do everything possible to find the reasons for the aviation accident’.
‘The plane was manufactured in 2016, it was received by the airline directly from the (Boeing) factory,’ a Ukrainian International Airlines statement said.
‘The plane underwent its last planned technical maintenance on January 6, 2020.’
An airline official said: ‘Given the complexity of the flight there was a reinforced crew on this flight. Given the experience of the crew, the chance of their making a mistake is minimal.’
On a possible missile strike, he said: ‘There is nothing we have to confirm this yet. ‘The information we gave you was a technical failure of the plane. It was one of our best crews.
‘There was nothing by late last night suggesting to us that we needed to restrict flights.
‘We have a right to make this decision and had there been a single threat we would have stopped the service.’
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 on board.
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.
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.