A Ukrainian passenger jet carrying 176 people crashed on Wednesday, 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.
Ukraine International Airlines said it had indefinitely suspended flights to Tehran after the crash.
The plane carried 167 passengers and nine crew members from different nations on its flight to the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, Qassem Biniaz, a spokesman for Iran's Road and Transportation Ministry, said. According to a statement by Ukrainian Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko, 82 Iranians, 63 Canadians, 11 Ukrainians, 10 Swedes, 4 Afghans, 3 Germans and 3 British nationals were killed in 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 following the crash.
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.
It remains unclear what happened. Biniaz 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. Iranian rescue workers found a black box from the crashed Ukrainian airliner, Iran's state broadcaster IRIB reported.
"I ask everyone to keep from speculating and putting forth unconfirmed theories about the crash," Zelenskiy wrote on Facebook.
The Ukrainian Embassy in Tehran said the plane went down "due to an engine problem."
It said that "an act of terror is ruled out" for the moment, adding that the Ukrainian ambassador was at the crash site.
Zelenskiy ordered the creation of a crisis team to handle the accident including top ministers and managed by the country's national security agency.
"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.
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.
Footage shows Ukrainian Airlines Boeing 737 jet carrying at least 170 passengers crashes in Tehran shortly after takeoff pic.twitter.com/BUk4hlyOKm— DAILY SABAH (@DailySabah) January 8, 2020
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."
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. Airline officials said most of the passengers were transiting through Kyiv to other destinations.
AP journalists who reached the crash site saw a wide field of debris scattered across farmland, the dead lying 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."
In this file photo taken on July 4, 2017 a Boeing 737-3E7 from Ukraine International Airlines lands at Israel's Ben Gurion International airport on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. (AFP Photo)
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. Boeing built the aircraft that crashed Wednesday in 2016 and it last underwent routine maintenance on Monday, Ukraine International Airlines said.
Founded in 1992 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, planes operated by loss-making privately-held UIA, which is based out of Kiev's Boryspil airport, had suffered technical problems in flight over the years but had never crashed before.
UIA says on its website it had been awarded the IOSA - the IATA Operational Safety Audit certificate - meaning its operational and safety standards were fully in line with international requirements.
The airline, which operates domestic and international flights, has a fleet of 42 planes made up, according to it own website, of various Boeings, including 737-800s and 737-900s. It also operates Embraer aircraft.
Financial problems forced it to scale back its route network last year.
UIA is in the process of trying to modernize its fleet and has ordered three Boeing 737 MAX aircraft which it has not yet taken delivery of due to continuing safety concerns over the MAX project.
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.
Chicago-based Boeing Co. was "aware of the media reports out of Iran and we are gathering more information," spokesman Michael Friedman told the AP.
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.