The crash of the Ukraine International Airlines aircraft came hours after Iran launched a ballistic missile attack on Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops, but Iranian officials said they suspected a mechanical issue brought down the Boeing 737-800.
The carrier said the plane was built in 2016 and “underwent its last planned technical maintenance” on Monday, Agence France Press reported.
Airline officials said most of the passengers were en route to the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, transiting through there to other destinations.
Staff at the Boryspil airport in Kyiv told CBS News passengers on that flight are usually Iranian students coming back to Ukraine after winter holidays.
The plane had 167 passengers and nine crew members from different nations. Ukraine’s foreign minister, Vadym Prystaiko, said there were 82 Iranians, 63 Canadians and 11 Ukrainians on board — the Ukrainian nationals included two passengers and the nine crew. There were also 10 Swedish, four Afghan, three German and three British nationals.
Ukrainian 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,” Ukraine’s parliament speaker, Dmytro Razumkov, said in a Facebook statement.
Ukraine International Airlines said it had indefinitely suspended flights to Tehran in the wake of the crash.
“It was one of the best planes we had, with an amazing, reliable crew,” Yevhen Dykhne, president of the Ukraine International Airlines, said at a briefing.
Zelenskiy ordered a sweeping inspection of all civil airplanes in the country, “no matter the conclusions about the crash in Iran.”
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, according to data from the flight-tracking website FlightRadar24.
It remains unclear what happened. Qassem Biniaz, a spokesman for Iran’s Road and Transportation Ministry, said it appeared one of its engines caught fire. The pilot 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 didn’t elaborate.
The Reuters news agency said Iranian TV reported that one of the plane’s two “black boxes” was found.
Ukrainian authorities have offered to help with the investigation.
The plane, fully loaded with fuel for its 1,430 mile flight, slammed into farmland near the town of Shahedshahr. Videos taken immediately after the crash show blazes lighting up the darkened fields before dawn.
“The fire is so heavy that we cannot (do) any rescue. … We have 22 ambulances, four bus ambulances and a helicopter at the site,” Reuters quoted Pirhossein Koulivand, head of Iran’s emergency services, as telling Iranian state television.
Resident Din Mohammad Qassemi said he’d been watching the news about the Iranian ballistic missile attack on U.S. forces 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, Biniaz said. The crash took the lives of everyone on board, Iranian emergency officials and Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said.
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, including a child’s cartoon-covered electric toothbrush and 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.”
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.