A flaming commercial airliner crashed in northwestern Iran on Wednesday, killing all 168 people on board in the deadliest civil aviation disaster in the Islamic Republic in two decades.
Caspian Airlines Flight 7908, headed from Tehran to Yerevan, the Armenian capital, crashed before noon in the Takestan region of Iran’s Qazvin province, state media reported.
Video footage of the crash site broadcast on state television showed a huge crater created by the jet, a Russian-built TU-154 that appeared to have splintered on impact. “Evidence shows that the plane has broken into pieces,” Gen. Massoud Jafari-Nasab told the official Islamic Republic News Agency.
The crash underscored what civil aviation experts consider the dilapidated state of Iran’s aging fleet of aircraft and the shortcomings of an air transport industry under severe international sanctions that prevent it from purchasing Western-made Boeing or Airbus aircraft.
The U.S. has offered to lift sanctions that forbid the sale of planes with any more than 10% American components as part of a deal involving a curtailing of Iran’s nuclear research program. Iranian officials have repeatedly dismissed such offers, while charging that the American posture puts the lives of ordinary travelers at risk.
Flight 7908 crashed 16 minutes after departure, Jafari-Nasab told the semiofficial Fars news agency. Reza Jafarzadeh, a spokesman for the state aviation company, told Iranian television that 153 passengers and 15 crew members were aboard and that the flight recorders, the so-called black boxes containing voice recordings and vital data about the plane before it crashed, had been recovered.
“We need to investigate all the factors contributing to the incident before giving further details on how the incident took place and making an expert comment,” Jafarzadeh said.
Witnesses told Iranian news agencies that the plane was already on fire when it hit the ground near the village of Jannatabad.
“Its wheels were out and there was fire coming from the lower parts,” Abul-Fazel Idaji told Fars. “Moments later the plane hit the ground and broke into pieces.”
In Yerevan, the deputy head of the Armenian civil aviation organization told reporters that the pilot had attempted an emergency landing after an engine caught fire. But an unnamed airline representative told Armenian television that officials were still trying to assess the cause of the crash.
Among those killed were 10 members of the Iranian national youth judo squad traveling to Yerevan for a summer training camp. At least six of the passengers were citizens of Armenia, and some were citizens of neighboring Georgia, Armenian news agencies reported.
Iran’s Armenian ethnic minority has strengthened ties with neighboring Armenia in recent years. Tehran and Yerevan have strong commercial and political relations.
Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan cut short a trip to the provinces and returned to the capital as the crash was announced on public television, later declaring today a day of mourning.
Caspian, a 16-year-old commercial airline, is based in Tehran and operates within Iran and to Syria, Turkey, Ukraine, the United Arab Emirates and Armenia using Russian-made Tupolev jets. Experts described the TU-154 plane as the Russian equivalent of the Boeing 727. The model first entered service with Russia’s Aeroflot airlines in 1972.
Iran Air Tour TU-154s crashed Sept. 1, 2006, in northeastern Iran, killing 29 people, and Feb. 12, 2002, in western Iran, killing all 118 aboard. Another TU-154 collided with an Iranian air force plane Feb. 8, 1993, killing 131 passengers and crew.
On July 3, 1988, the U.S. Navy cruiser Vincennes shot down an Iran Air Airbus over the Persian Gulf, killing 290 in Iran’s worst civilian air disaster.