There was no immediate sign the two events were linked and some Iranian officials blamed the crash on a technical fault on the plane. But the cause of the disaster remained unclear, with Ukrainian authorities seeming unsure of the initial Iranian explanations on Wednesday.
The Boeing 737-800 airliner bound for Kyiv took off at 6:12 a.m. from Tehran’s Imam Homeini International Airport but got into trouble just two minutes into the flight, according to flight trackers.
Footage aired on Iranian television and released by the Iranian Red Crescent showed the plane’s wreckage scattered across a field in small fragments. Iranian officials told state media there was no chance anyone survived.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko said among the dead, 82 were Iranian and 68 were Canadian citizens. Eleven Ukrainians were killed, among them the airliner’s nine crew members, he said. Ten other passengers were from Sweden, four from Afghanistan, three from Germany and three from Britain, according to the minister.
Mansour Darajati, an official at Tehran’s governor’s office, however, told Iranian state media that the number of Iranians killed in the crash was around 140. It is possible that many of the victims held dual passports.
A flight manifest released by the airline showed there had been at least 25 children on board, including several under the age of 10.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy broke off a visit to Oman on learning of the news, issuing a statement to express his condolences to the friends and families of those killed.
It is unclear what caused the crash and speculation almost immediately arose that it could be linked somehow to the overnight missile crisis. Some speculated the plane was accidentally shot down by Iranian air defenses on alert for possible retaliation from the United States.
Iranian authorities, however, quickly said the plane had suffered an engine fire due to a technical problem and rejected that it could have been struck by a missile.
“The engine had caught fire. If the reason of the crash was missile, then it would explode in the sky. But the fire was in the plane engine and the pilot’s attempt to control the plane was unsuccessful,” Qassim Biniaz, a communications chief at the Iranian Ministry of Roads and Transport, told the state news agency IRNA.
Ukraine’s embassy in Tehran initially issued a statement confirming the Iranian version that it had been an engine fire but then later deleted it. And over the course of the day, Ukrainian officials began saying it was too early to rule anything out.
Asked at a briefing in Kyiv about the possibility that the plane might have been accidentally shot down, Ukraine’s Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk cautioned against speculation and asked people to wait for the results of the official investigation.
“All possible versions of what happened must be examined,” Zelenskiy wrote in a Facebook post.
Iran has said it is investigating and on Wednesday the plane’s “black box” flight recorder was found, Iranian state TV said.
But the head of Iran’s Civil Aviation Authority, Ali Abedzadeh, told the semi-official Mehr News Agency that Iran would not hand over the box to Boeing for analysis and said it had not yet been decided to which country it would be given.
The plane’s flight data stopped abruptly two minutes after take-off, the flight tracker Flightradar 24 showed. Abedzadeh said the pilot had not contacted the airport control tower to alert it of any problem and that so far there was no indication of any technical problems with the plane.
At a press conference in Kyiv, Ukraine International Airlines’ executives said the plane was built in 2016 and had been one of the best in their fleet. Its most recent scheduled service was two days ago, they said.
The crew was highly experienced, according to the executives; the captain, Volodymyr Gaponenko, had 11,600 flying hours, mostly spent on 737 aircraft, Ihor Sosnovsky, the airline’s vice president of operations, told reporters. His two co-pilots also had several thousand hours flying the same planes, he said.
“Given the crew’s experience, error probability is minimal. We do not even consider such a chance,” Sosnovsky said. According to the airlines, this is the first fatal crash since its founding in 1992.
The aircraft that crashed Wednesday, however, is not a Max, but a 737 Next Gen — an earlier model that has a generally strong safety record. The 737 Next Gen does not have the software investigators linked to the fatal 737 Max crashes.
“We are aware of the media reports out of Iran and we are gathering more information,” Boeing said in a statement Wednesday to ABC News.
Following the crash, several major airlines announced they would avoid Iranian airspace in light of the tensions there. Air France, Lufthansa, KLM, Malaysian Airlines and Taiwan’s largest carrier, China Airways, said they ordered their flights to take alternate routes to avoid flying over Iran and Iraq. Air Canada and Singapore airways said they had also altered their flight plans.
The Federal Aviation Authority on Tuesday prohibited U.S. carriers from flying over Iran, Iraq, the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, and the Russian national aviation authority on Wednesday recommended the same.
Officials with the International Air Transport Association said they were “deeply saddened” by the news of the crash.
“Our thoughts and condolences go out to the families & friends of those 180 souls who have lost their lives,” officials with the global airline organization posted on Twitter.
ABC News’ Alexandra Faul and Marc Nathanson contributed to this report.