Tehran: The black boxes from an Iranian airliner that crashed in flames near Tehran, killing all 168 people on board, have been found, a transport ministry official said on Thursday.
“The plane’s recording and flight systems have been found,” Ahmad Majidi, head of the ministry’s crisis unit, told the official IRNA news agency. “Our experts are examining the black boxes to try to determine the cause of the crash.”
The Caspian Airlines Tupolev-154 caught fire in mid-air en route to Armenia and plunged into farmland on Wednesday, killing all 153 passengers and 15 crew in the worst air disaster in sanctions-hit Iran in years.
Witnesses said the plane was ablaze before smashing into the ground and exploding near a village near the northwestern city of Qazvin shortly after take-off from Tehran.
Television images showed a vast smoking crater at the disaster site littered with debris of plane parts, shoes and clothes.
One relief worker told an agency reporter at the site that all he found were “pieces of flesh and bones.”
“There is not a single piece which can be identified. There is not a single finger of anybody left,” he said, standing next to a body bag filled with pieces of flesh.
In Yerevan, the deputy head of the Armenian civil aviation organisation, Arsen Pogossian, said the pilot had attempted an emergency landing after an engine caught fire.
He said 147 passengers were Iranian, of whom 31 were of Armenian origin, four were Armenians and two Georgians.
Iranian officials said 10 members of the junior national judo team were also among those killed.
In Sydney, officials said an Australian brother and sister, aged in their 20s, who possibly had dual nationality, were among the dead.
Witnesses spoke of seeing the plane on fire before it plunged to earth.
“I saw the plane when it was just... above the ground. Its wheels were out and there was fire blazing from the lower parts,” witness Ablolfazl Idaji told the Fars news agency.
“It seemed the pilot was trying to land and moments later the plane hit the ground and broke into pieces that were scattered far and wide.”
A farmer, 18-year-old Ahmad, gave a similar account.
“I was driving my tractor when I saw a big fire in the sky,” he told the agency.
“There were burnt parts scattered across the ground and I followed them and arrived at the crater. You could not believe your eyes. Nothing was left, but just a big hole with fire coming out of it.”
Many relatives vented their anger at Caspian Airlines, saying its planes could not be trusted.
“I hate these planes. With so much travel between Iran and Armenia, there have to be better planes,” said Alex, 24, an Iranian of Armenian origin who lost around dozen friends and relatives in the crash, including children.
The Tupolev Tu-154 is a Soviet-designed medium-range three-engine aircraft and was a best-seller for the Russian aircraft industry between 1972 and 1994.
Iran’s civil aviation spokesman Reza Jafarzadeh said the plane had taken off from Imam Khomeini international airport at 11:33 am (0703 GMT) but 16 minutes later “it disappeared off the radar and then it crashed.”
State television’s website quoted Ahmad Momeni, managing director of Iran’s airport authority, as saying that the last conversation between the pilot and the ground was “normal and did not indicate any technical glitch.”
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has ordered a transport ministry probe into the disaster, the third major plane crash in the world in six weeks.
Two weeks ago a Yemenia Airbus crashed in the Indian Ocean off the Comoros, killing 152 people, while on 1 June an Air France Airbus plunged into the Atlantic coast off Brazil killing 228.
Iran, which has been under years of international sanctions hampering its ability to buy Boeing or Airbus planes, has suffered a number of aviation disasters over the past decade.
In December 2005, 108 people were killed when a Lockheed transport plane crashed into a foot of a high-rise housing block outside Tehran.
In November 2006, a military plane crashed on takeoff in Tehran, killing all 39 people on board.
Iran’s civil and military fleet is made up of ancient aircraft in very poor condition due to their age and lack of maintenance.