DUBAI/KIEV (REUTERS) - A Ukrainian airliner crashed shortly after take-off from Teheran on Wednesday (Jan 8), bursting into flames and killing all 176 people on board.
The Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737-800, en route to Kiev and carrying mostly Iranians and Iranian-Canadians, crashed hours after Iran fired missiles at bases housing US forces in Iraq. The cause of the crash was not immediately clear.
Smouldering parts and debris, including shoes and clothes, were strewn across a field southwest of the Iranian capital, where rescue workers in face masks laid out scores of body bags.
Among the victims were 82 Iranians, 63 Canadians, and 11 Ukrainians, Ukrainian authorities said. The Teheran-Toronto via Kiev route was a popular one for Canadians of Iranian descent visiting Iran, in the absence of direct flights, and carried many students and academics heading home from the holidays.
The victims included a newlywed couple that had gone to Iran to get married. Arash Pourzarabi, 26, and Pouneh Gourji, 25, were graduate students in computer science at the University of Alberta. Four members of their wedding party were also on board.
At Kiev's main airport, candles and flowers were laid next to pictures of the deceased Ukrainian crew members. Kateryna Gaponenko, who was married to pilot Volodymyr Gaponenko, told local channel 1+1 that she had pleaded with her husband before the flight not to fly to Tehran.
It was Kiev-based Ukraine International Airlines' first fatal crash, and the carrier said it was doing everything possible to establish the cause.
It comes at a difficult time for planemaker Boeing , which has grounded its 737 Max fleet after two crashes last year. The 737-800 is one of the world's most-flown models with a good safety record and does not have the software feature implicated in crashes of the 737 Max.
"We are in contact with our airline customers and stand by them in this difficult time. We are ready to assist in any way needed," the manufacturer said in a statement. Boeing shares fell 1.4 per cent on Wednesday.
Ukraine will send a team of experts to Iran later on Wednesday to investigate the crash, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in the Ukrainian capital. He said he had instructed Ukraine's prosecutor-general to open criminal proceedings, without specifying who they would involve.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada would "continue to work closely with its international partners to ensure that this crash is thoroughly investigated" and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States was calling for complete cooperation with any investigation into cause of the crash.
Under international rules, responsibility for investigating the crash lies with Iran. Iranian state television said both of the plane's black box voice and data recorders had been found.
The semi-official Mehr news agency quoted the head of Iran's civil aviation organisation as saying it was not clear which country Iran would send the black boxes to for analysis of the data, but it would not give them to Boeing.
The plane that crashed was a three-year-old Boeing 737-800NG. Its last scheduled maintenance was on Jan 6, Ukraine International Airlines said.
An amateur video, run by Iranian news agencies and purportedly of the crashing plane, showed a descending flash in a dark sky. It was accompanied by comments that the aircraft was"on fire" and then a brighter flash as it appears to hit the ground. Reuters could not authenticate the footage.
Early on Wednesday, Iran had fired more than a dozen ballistic missiles at bases housing US forces in Iraq in retaliation for a US drone strike last week that killed an Iranian military commander.
Some airlines cancelled Iran and Iraq flights and re-routed others away from both countries' airspace following the missile strikes. The European Aviation Safety Agency recommended that commercial flights avoid Iraqi airspace.
In Paris, the maker of the plane's engines, French-U.S. firm CFM - co-owned by General Electric and France's Safran - said speculation regarding the cause was premature.
Iranian TV put the crash down to unspecified technical problems, and Iranian media quoted a local aviation official as saying the pilot did not declare an emergency.
Safety experts say airliner accidents rarely have a single cause and that it typically takes months of investigation to understand all the factors behind them.
Modern aircraft are designed and certified to cope with an engine failure shortly after take-off and to fly for extended periods on one engine. But an uncontained engine failure releasing shrapnel can cause damage to other aircraft systems.