Special report: The Iran air disaster
It was still dark when Ukraine International Airlines flight 752 took off on Wednesday from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini airport. Onboard were 176 people. Most were returning home after holidays spent with families and friends in Iran. They were couples, newlyweds, students.
by Luke Harding and Peter Beaumont, The Guardian
A mother and a daughter – Sahar Hagjjoo and her eight-year-old child Elsa – posed for a photograph together after taking their seats. A sweet one, with the pair relaxed, smiling, a little tired from the early start. Everyone on the plane would have known of the strained diplomatic circumstances swirling before them.
Three days earlier the Trump administration had assassinated the Iranian general Qassem Suleimani in a devastating drone strike, soon after he landed in Baghdad. His killing provoked national mourning in Iran, defiance from the regime and threats of fiery revenge.
Retaliation arrived in the shape of Iranian missiles launched against US military bases in Iraq. Rockets crashed into a joint US-Iraqi facility in Erbil, in Kurdish northern Iraq, and at a US airbase in Anbar province. By design or accident, no one was hurt.
In the immediate aftermath of these strikes Iran’s armed garrisons must have been in a state of jittery high alert, wondering what the volatile Donald Trump might do next. Another US attack against domestic Iranian targets? A pause? Something else?
It was against this war-like backdrop that the plane took off at 6.12am. It climbed rapidly, reaching almost 8,000ft (2,400 metres). Its destination was Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv. From there most passengers were heading off elsewhere. More than a third were Iranian Canadians, going to Toronto or Edmonton.
The results were immediate and catastrophic
Four British nationals were connecting to London. They included Mohammad Reza Kadkhoda-Zadeh, who ran a dry cleaning business in Hassocks, West Sussex; Sam Zokaei, a BP employee and Saeed Tahmabessi, an engineer.
The plane would have appeared on the radar screen of Iran’s Mehrabad air traffic control centre, which cleared the crew to ascend to 26,000ft. Staff should have identified the Boeing 737-800 plane as a regular civilian jet.
Also tracking the skies over Tehran were American satellites. If further missiles were hurled at US targets in Iraq the US’s Space-Based Infrared System would immediately detect them.
At 6.15am the system picked up something ominous: the unmistakable heat signature of missiles freshly launched.
An Iranian garrison on the ground, due west of the airport, appears to have mistaken the plane for a hostile American object. According to US officials, an Iranian anti-aircraft battery unleashed two Russian-made missiles. The US satellites recorded an infrared blip: an explosion.
The results were immediate and catastrophic.
Mobile phone footage captures the moment of impact: a white flash, flaring across the inky heavens. Twenty four seconds later the sound arrives – a boom and martial roar. Down on earth a dog barks. Further footage shot from a different standpoint shows the stricken plane hitting the ground, a burst of orange.
The missiles would have exploded adjacent to the plane, sending a deadly hail of shrapnel into the fuselage. The pilots made a doomed attempt to turn back, judging from the position of wreckage strewn across Tehran’s outskirts. Take-off to crash landing was five minutes. The journey’s last moments must have been ones of terror.
As dawn broke, rescuers found an awful scene. Bodies, personal belongings, parts of the wing, oxygen masks were scattered over farmland. The dead were put into plastic sacks. As Washington, Ottawa, Kyiv and London demanded answers, and relatives began to grieve, the Iranian authorities said the incident was a tragic case of mechanical mishap.
It was clear that Tehran was going down the same road of denial
There were early hints, however, that this version of events might not be quite true. Ukrainian investigators and western journalists reported seeing men in uniform remove fragments of the plane. A bulldozer began to clear the site. Iran said it would not hand over the black box to foreign experts. This was damaged but intact.
Meanwhile, photographs circulated on social media showing what looked like a missile head – with cone and fins – lying in a nearby drainage ditch. A compelling clue or fake news? Initially, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said the plane had crashed as a result of an accident. Within hours, his government deleted this statement.
Behind the scenes, western governments were carefully picking over the satellite record. It confirmed that the Revolutionary Guards’ Parandak garrison had used a short-range Tor-M1 missile system to bring down the plane. Seemingly, its nervous operators had confused it with a US military jet. Or a reconnaissance drone.
In 2005 Tehran bought 29 Tor-M1s from Moscow. They consist of a missile launcher and radar in a single tracked vehicle. The weapon system is highly effective against short-range targets, with a range of 7.5 miles (12km), up to an altitude of 20,000ft.
For Ukraine, these details were a grim echo of six years ago. In summer 2014, as part of a covert invasion, the Russian military smuggled a Buk missile launcher into rebel-held eastern Ukraine. Its Russian crew accidentally shot down an overflying civilian plane, Malaysian airlines flight MH17, killing all 298 people onboard.
Dutch and international investigators subsequently confirmed Russia’s role. Moscow rejected this. Ever since it has offered implausible counter-versions.
It was clear that Tehran was going down the same road of denial. The head of Iran’s civil aviation organisation said it was “scientifically impossible” that a missile could have hit the Ukrainian plane. Such rumours were “illogical”, Ali Abedzadeh told state-run media. In London, Iran’s ambassador to the UK, Hamid Baeidinejad, accused the west and the UK of “politicising” the inquiry.
Such assertions failed to convince.
Western security officials began briefing on Thursday afternoon they suspected the plane had been accidentally shot down by an Iranian missile. Then Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, made a sombre statement saying his country wanted transparency and an honest reckoning. “We have intelligence, including from our allies and own intelligence,that the plane was shot down by Iranian surface-to-air missiles,” Trudeau said.
By Friday the international consensus was clear. Iran had shot down flight 752 and now seemed determined to cover up much of the evidence. Boris Johnson said “a body of information” confirmed Trudeau’s analysis. Zelenskiy spoke with the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and confirmed US officials had passed on “important data”.
The US president who had ramped up conflict with Iran – seemingly stepping back this week from full-scale war – said he had “suspicions” about the crash. “It’s a tragic thing … somebody could have made a mistake on the other side,” Trump said.
The question of who bore ultimate responsibility for Wednesday’s disaster was murky. Months of accusation and counter-accusation are now likely. What is clear is that Trump’s decision to assassinate Suleimani had terrible unintended consequences.
It set off a tragic chain of events, culminating in a disaster in which the victims were innocent civilians. In a region as bloody and unpredictable as the Middle East, further such episodes will surely follow.
Air crash experts have raised serious concerns over the handling of the crash site of a Ukrainian airliner suspected to have been accidentally shot down by Iranian missiles, as fears grow that Tehran has sought to eliminate evidence from the area. Graham Braithwaite, professor of safety and accident investigation at Cranfield University, said the Iranian handling of the crash site, including the apparent quick removal of evidence, raised “serious concerns over the integrity of the investigation”.
“Where you have flight recorders that tell you what has happened you can move quickly to clearing the site,” he explained. “But if the recorders are damaged [as the Iranians have said] then all you have is the forensic evidence at the site to tell you the story.”
The Ukrainian foreign minister, Vadym Prystaiko, said on Friday that it had been given access to the flight recorders and planned to start analysing their content.
Iran has invited investigators from Canada, Ukraine and Boeing to see the accident site on the outskirts of Tehran to prove the aircraft was not mistakenly targeted by Iranian air defences. It said it would also welcome representatives of other countries whose citizens died on Ukraine International Airlines flight 752.
Prystaiko said Ukrainian experts had been given access to the crash site but according to a crew from the US broadcaster CBS News who reached the crash site by 9am on Thursday morning, it appeared to have been cleared of the plane’s debris.
Canadians blame Trump
Calls for justice have continued to grow in Canada amid repeated denials from Iran that its missiles brought down a passenger jet which crashed near Tehran, killing 176 people – most of whom were traveling to Canadian cities. Canadian officials and members of the country’s transportation safety board are due to travel to Tehran to investigate the crash, although it remained unclear how much access they would be granted to the site.
Crowds gathered across the country to pay tribute to lost friends, co-workers and loved ones on Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752.
Yalda Norouzi was one of hundreds who attended a vigil on Thursday night in northern Toronto – a neighbourhood with so many Iranian-Canadian inhabitants that it is known as “Tehranto”.
Norouzi choked back tears as she recalled her friend Mahdieh Ghassem, who died alongside her two young children, Arnica and Arsan. A week before she left for Iran, Ghassem had won a commission to design a cafe for the popular Canadian coffee chain Tim Hortons.
“They will stay alive in our hearts forever,” she said.
Patty De Frutos, was there to commemorate her co-worker, Alvand Sadeghi, a web developer who was killed in the crash alongside his wife, sister and niece.
“It’s just crazy how destiny works to steal the greatest. We all know he was the best out of all of us,” said De Frutos.
The city’s mayor, John Tory, pledged support for the Iranian community, saying “When one group suffers, we all suffer.”
But as more political and community leaders spoke, mourners grew frustrated.
“We want justice! We want justice!” mourners chanted as others laid candles and flowers at a makeshift memorial.
Earlier on Thursday, Justin Trudeau said that intelligence reports suggested that the plane had been brought down by an Iranian missile. The Canadian prime minister suggested the event may have been unintentional, but called for a thorough investigation.
“Canadians want answers. That means transparency, accountability and justice,” said the prime minister. “This government will not rest until we get that.”
Trudeau declined to lay blame on the US president, Donald Trump, whose decision to order a drone strike on Iran’s most senior general, Qassem Suleimani, stoked rising tensions in the Middle East. Hours before the Kyiv-bound passenger jet came down, Iran had fired a barrage of missiles at US bases in Iraq.
“I think that’s one of the many questions that people will be thinking about and trying to find answers to,” said Trudeau.
Others were less generous in their assessment. One tweet that went viral in Canada read: “The next time some ignorant American tells me, as a Canadian, that I should mind my own business when it comes to their politics, I think it would only be prudent to remind them of #IranPlaneCrash that took 63 Canadian lives due to the actions and fallout of their ‘President’.”