A passenger plane bound for the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, has crashed a few minutes after taking off from Tehran’s main international airport, killing 176 people.
Iran’s Red Crescent said there was no chance of finding survivors, and Pir Hossein Kulivand, an Iranian emergency official, later told state TV all those onboard had been killed.
Victims of the crash included 82 Iranians, 63 Canadians, 11 Ukrainians, 10 Swedes, four Afghans, three Germans and three Britons, according to Ukraine’s foreign minister, Vadym Prystaiko. Most of the passengers were en route to Kyiv, transiting through there to other destinations.
The Boeing 737-800, operated by Ukrainian International Airlines, took off from Imam Khomeini international airport at 6.12am Tehran time on Wednesday, after being delayed by almost an hour. It took off to the west, but never made it above 8,000ft and went down about 10 minutes later, according to flight-tracking websites.
A video purportedly of the crash circulated by Isna showed the aircraft burning as it fell from the sky.
Iranian officials said the plane’s engine had caught fire, causing the pilot to lose control. A statement initially posted on the website of the Ukrainian embassy in Iran ruled out an act of terror and said the crash had been caused by an engine malfunction. However, this was later redacted, with the embassy stating that all information would be provided by an official commission.
The black box containing vital records of how the plane crashed has been located in a field among the debris outside Tehran, but Iran said it would not hand the device over to plane maker Boeing. It is not clear whether Iranian authorities are disputing the legality of handing over the black box to Boeing, a US company, or whether they are seeking to inspect the box themselves.
The news has fuelled speculation that there was something suspicious about the downing of the plane.
Boeing, which would usually assist with such investigations, released a brief statement saying it was aware of the media reports about the disaster and was gathering more information.
The 737-800 belongs to the same family as, but is different to, the 737 Max 8 aircraft, which has been grounded since two fatal crashes occurred within six months in Indonesia and Ethiopia in 2018. The 737-800 operates with a different software system to the one implicated in the Max 8 crashes.
The plane was less than four years old and had been checked two days before the accident, according to Ukraine International Airlines, which has indefinitely suspended flights to Tehran. Yevheniy Dykhne, the president of the airline, said it was “one of the best planes we had, with an amazing, reliable crew”. Nine of the Ukrainians onboard were crew.
An investigation team was deployed to the site of the crash on the south-western outskirts of Tehran on Wednesday morning, said Reza Jafarzadeh, a civil aviation spokesman. Qassem Biniaz, a spokesman for Iran’s road and transportation ministry, told the state-run Irna news agency it appeared the pilot had lost control after a fire struck one of the plane’s engines.
Hassan Rezaeifar, the head of the air crash investigation committee, said it appeared the pilot could not communicate with air-traffic controllers in Tehran in the last moments of the flight. He did not provide further details.
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who cut short a visit to Oman following the crash, ordered an investigation and a sweeping check of “all civilian aircraft” in the country.
“Our task is to establish the cause of the crash of the Boeing and provide all necessary help to the families of the victims,” Dmytro Razumkov, the speaker of the Ukrainian parliament, said in a statement on Facebook.
The UK Foreign Office added it was urgently seeking confirmation about how many British nationals were onboard, and that it would do all it could to support any families affected.
Journalists from Associated Press, who reached the crash site on Wednesday morning, described farmland covered with debris. The dead lay among shattered pieces of the aircraft, their possessions, including a child’s electric toothbrush, a stuffed animal, luggage and electronics, strewn across the site.
One witness, Aref Geravand, told AP the pilot managed to steer the plane towards a football field and away from a residential area. “It crashed near the field and in a water canal,” they said.
Boeing, the US’s largest manufacturing exporter, has struggled to regain public trust after its 737 Max plane was involved in the two crashes that killed 346 people.
The company has faced intense scrutiny, including allegations that it was aware of problems with a new automatic flight control feature on the 737 Max, which investigators believe is likely to have been the cause of the crashes. Last month, the company fired its chief executive, Dennis Muilenburg, who had been widely criticised by families and regulators for his handling of the crisis.
Several 737-800 aircraft have been involved in deadly accidents. In March 2016, a FlyDubai 737-800 from Dubai crashed while trying to land at Rostov-on-Don airport in Russia, killing 62 people onboard. 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.
Reuters and Associated Press contributed to this report