Ukrainian plane never called for help before crash, say Iran investigators

By Amir Vahdat and Jon Gambrell, Associated Press

The crew of a Ukrainian airliner that crashed in Iran never made a radio call for help and were trying to turn back to the airport when it went down, according to an initial Iranian report.

The report suggested a sudden emergency struck the Boeing 737 operated by Ukrainian International Airlines early on Wednesday when it went down moments after taking off from Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran, killing 176 people.

Investigators from Iran’s Civil Aviation Organisation offered no immediate explanation for the disaster.

Witnesses, including the crew of a passing flight, described seeing the plane engulfed in flames before crashing, the report said. The crash caused a massive explosion when the plane hit the ground, likely to have been because the aircraft was fully loaded with fuel for the flight to Kyiv in Ukraine.

(PA Graphics)

The report also confirmed that both the “black boxes” that contain data and cockpit communications from the plane had been recovered, though they had been damaged and some parts of their memory was lost.

It also said investigators have initially ruled out laser or electromagnetic interference as causing the crash.

Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s Security Council, told Ukrainian media that officials had several working theories regarding the crash, including a missile strike.

“A strike by a missile, possibly a Tor missile system, is among the main (theories), as information has surfaced on the internet about elements of a missile being found near the site of the crash,” Mr Danilov said.

Ukrainian investigators that arrived in Iran earlier on Thursday are awaiting permission from Iranian authorities to examine the crash site and look for missile fragments, Mr Danilov said.

The Tor is a Russian-made missile system.

Russia delivered 29 Tor-M1s to Iran in 2007 as part of a 700 million dollar contract signed in December 2005.

Iran has displayed the missiles in military parades as well.

General Abolfazl Shekarchi, spokesman of the Iranian armed forces, denied a missile hit the plane in comments reported on Wednesday by the semi-official Fars news agency.

He dismissed the allegation as “psychological warfare” by foreign-based Iranian opposition groups.

Mr Danilov also said other possible causes under consideration included a drone or another flying object crashing into the plane, a terrorist attack or an engine malfunction causing an explosion.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said crash investigators from his country had arrived in Iran to assist in the probe. He also said he planned to call Iranian President Hassan Rouhani about the crash and the investigation.

“Undoubtedly, the priority for Ukraine is to identify the causes of the plane crash,” Mr Zelenskiy said. “We will surely find out the truth.”

The plane was carrying 167 passengers and nine crew members, including 82 Iranians, at least 63 Canadians, 11 Ukrainians, and three Britons according to officials. The crash just before dawn scattered flaming debris and passengers’ belongings across a wide stretch of farmland.

It came immediately after Iran launched a ballistic missile attack against Iraqi military bases housing US troops amid a confrontation with Washington over it killing an Iranian Revolutionary Guard general in a drone strike last week.

Many of the passengers were believed to be international students attending universities in Canada, making their way back to Toronto via Kyiv after visiting family during the winter break.

Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau said 138 of the passengers were bound for Canada. The flight included a family of four and newlyweds. The manifest listed several teenagers and children, some as young as one or two.

The crash ranked among the worst losses of life for Canadians in an aviation disaster. The flag over parliament in Ottawa was lowered to half-mast, and Mr Trudeau vowed to get to the bottom of the disaster.

“Know that all Canadians are grieving with you,” he said, addressing the victims’ families.

Ukrainian officials initially agreed with Iranian suspicions that the three-year-old plane was brought down by mechanical trouble but later backed away from that and declined to offer a cause during the investigation.

While the cause of the tragedy remains unknown, the disaster could further damage Boeing’s reputation, which has been battered by two deadly crashes involving a different model of the Boeing jet, the much-newer 737 Max, which has been grounded for nearly 10 months.

The uproar led to the firing of the company’s chief executive last month.

Boeing extended condolences to the victims’ families and said it stands ready to assist.