TEHRAN, Iran – A Russian-made Iranian passenger plane with nearly 170 people crashed shortly after takeoff Wednesday, smashing into a field northwest of the capital and shattering to pieces. State television said all on board were killed.
The plane's tail burst into flames in the air and it circled in the air as if looking for a place to land before it crashed, an unidentified witness told the semi-official ISNA news agency.
The impact gouged a deep trench in the dirt field, which was shown littered with smoking wreckage in footage shown on state TV. It showed a large chunk of a wing, but much of the wreckage appeared to be in small pieces, and emergency workers and witnesses picked around the shredded metal for bodies and flight data recorders to determine the cause of the crash.
The Caspian Airlines Tupolev jet had taken off from Tehran's Imam Khomeini International Airport Wednesday and was headed to the Armenian capital Yerevan. It crashed about 16 minutes after takeoff near the village of Jannat Abad outside the city of Qazvin, around 75 miles northwest of Tehran, civil aviation spokesman Reza Jaafarzadeh told state media.
At Yerevan's airport, Tina Karapetian, 45, said she had been waiting for her sister and the sister's 6- and 11-year-old sons, who were due on the flight. "What will I do without them?" she said, weeping, before she collapsed to the floor.
The cause of the crash was not immediately known, but Iran has frequent crashes that are blamed on poor maintenance of its aging fleet. Hossein Ayaznia, an aviation police official, said emergency workers were searching for the plane's black box.
The deputy chairman of Armenia's civil aviation authority Arsen Pogosian told reporters in Yerevan there were 154 passengers and 15 crewmembers on board the TU-154M. Earlier, Jaafarzadeh had put the number at 153 passengers and 15 crew, and the reason for the discrepancy was not immediately known.
Six Armenian citizens and two Georgian citizens were on the flight, and the rest were likely Iranians, Pogosian said.
Serob Karapetian, the chief of Yerevan airport's aviation security service, said the plane may have attempted an emergency landing, but reports that it caught fire in the air were "only one version." He did not elaborate.
Qazvin emergency services director Hossein Bahzadpour told the IRNA news agency that the plane was completely destroyed and shattered the pieces. "It is highly likely that all the passengers on the flight were killed," he said.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad issued a statement expressing condolences for the deaths and urging a swift investigation of the cause.
Also among the passengers were eight members of Iran's national youth judo team, along with two trainers and a delegation chief, who were scheduled to train with the Armenian judo team before attending competitions in Hungary on Aug. 6, state TV said.
Tehran blames the maintenance woes of its airlines in part on U.S. sanctions that prevent Iran from getting spare parts for some planes. However, Caspian Airlines — an Iranian-Russian joint venture founded in 1993 — uses Russian-made Tupolevs whose maintenance would be less impaired by American sanctions.
In February 2006, a Russian-made TU-154 operated by Iran Airtour, which is affiliated with Iran's national carrier, crashed during landing in Tehran, killing 29 of the 148 people on board. Another Airtour Tupolev crashed in 2002 in the mountains of western Iran, killing all 199 on board.
The crashes have also affected Iran's military. In December 2005, 115 people were killed when a U.S.-made C-130 plane, crashed into a 10-story building near Tehran's Mehrabad airport. In Nov. 2007, a Russian-made Iranian military plane crashed shortly after takeoff killing 36 members of the elite Revolutionary Guards.