The Ukraine International Airlines plane, which crashed shortly after takeoff from Tehran, killing 176 people on board, had turned back after experiencing a problem, Iranian authorities said.

Security personnel work at the scene where a Ukrainian plane crash in Shahedshahr, southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran. January 8, 2020.
Security personnel work at the scene where a Ukrainian plane crash in Shahedshahr, southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran. January 8, 2020. (AP)

The crew of a Ukrainian jetliner that crashed in Iran never made a radio call for help and were trying to turn back for the airport when the plane went down, according to an initial Iranian report released on Thursday on the disaster that killed 176 people.

The report suggested a sudden emergency struck the Boeing 737-800 operated by Ukrainian International Airlines on Wednesday morning and it went down just moments after taking off from Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran.

Investigators from Iran's Civil Aviation Organisation offered no immediate explanation for the disaster, however.

Eyewitnesses, including the crew of another 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 because the aircraft had been fully loaded with fuel for the flight to Kyiv, Ukraine.

The report also confirmed that both of the so-called “black boxes” that contain data and cockpit communications from the plane had been recovered, though they had damaged and some parts of their memory were lost. It also said that investigators have initially ruled out laser or electromagnetic interference as causing the crash.

Ukraine considering several possibilities 

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.

Zelenskiy said the government was considering several possible causes of a plane crash in Iran.

In a television statement, Zelenskiy asked people to refrain from manipulation, speculation, conspiracy theories and hasty evaluations regarding Iran plane crash.

He also declared January 9 a day of national mourning.

Zelenskiy, who on Wednesday ended a visit to Oman, laid flowers at the airport of Boryspil, where the crashed plane was based.

"Undoubtedly, the priority for Ukraine is to identify the causes of the plane crash. We will surely find out the truth. For this purpose, a thorough and independent investigation will be conducted in accordance with international law," Zelenskiy said.

Iran probe finds plane turned back after 'problem'

"The plane, which was initially headed west to leave the airport zone, turned right following a problem and was headed back to the airport at the moment of the crash," the Iranian Civil Aviation Organisation said on its website late Wednesday.

"The plane disappeared from radar screens the moment it reached 2,400 metres (8,000 feet). The pilot sent no radio message about the unusual circumstances.

"According to eyewitnesses, a fire was seen on board the plane which grew in intensity," the organisation added, reporting the first findings of its investigation into Wednesday's crash.

167 passengers, nine crew members 

The plane was carrying 167 passengers and nine crew members from several countries, including 82 Iranians, at least 63 Canadians and 11 Ukrainians, according to officials. 

The crash just before dawn scattered flaming debris and passengers’ belongings across a wide stretch of farmland. It also 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; they were making their way back to Toronto by way of Kyiv after visiting with family during the winter break.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said 138 of the passengers were bound for Canada. The flight also included a family of four and newlyweds, too. The manifest listed several teenagers and children, some as young as 1 or 2.

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-staff, and Trudeau vowed to get to the bottom of the disaster.

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

String of Boeing tragedies 

Ukrainian officials, for their part, initially agreed with Iranian suspicions that the three-and-a-half-year-old plane was brought down by mechanical trouble but later backed away from that and declined to offer a cause while the investigation is going on.

While the cause of the tragedy remained unknown, the disaster could further damage Boeing’s reputation, which has been battered by the furore over 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 CEO last month.

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

Source: TRTWorld and agencies