Students from Canadian universities, families among plane crash victims in Iran

Newlyweds, a toddler and university students returning to their studies were among 138 people travelling to Canada who died Wednesday morning when a Ukrainian passenger plane crashed shortly after taking off from Iran's capital, Tehran.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said 138 of the 176 passengers aboard the Kyiv-bound plane had connecting flights to Canada.

"A Ukrainian Airlines plane just landed in Toronto from Kyiv," he said at a news conference Wednesday afternoon. "According to the airline, there were 138 passengers who weren't on that flight."

A portrait of the people who should have filled those seats began to emerge in the hours following the crash. Universities across Canada lowered flags to half-mast and began mourning faculty members and students, who featured heavily on a passenger list that included at least 63 Canadians.

Many of the victims were from Edmonton. Others included a North Vancouver couple, Toronto-area professionals and a family of three from Ajax, Ont. CIBC bank said Evin Arsalani, her husband Hiva and their one-year-old child all died in the crash.

More than a dozen students from Canadian universities as well as professors and alumni were confirmed among the crash victims.

University of Alberta president David Turpin said several of the school's students were on the plane.

"This is a devastating loss for the University of Alberta," he said. "Ours is a closely interconnected community, and we grieve with everyone touched by this terrible loss."

Payman Paseyan, a member of the Iranian-Canadian community in Edmonton, said his friend Pedram Mousavi died along with his wife Mojgan Daneshmand and their daughters Daria Mousavi and Dorina Mousavi. The parents were engineering professors at the University of Alberta.

"They had two young girls with them. I can't imagine what was going through their mind," said Paseyan.

Hossein Saghlitooin, who did his PhD and post-doctorate under Mousavi, said he has known the family for about six years.

"I was crying my eyes out. I am not an emotional person, but I know them so much," he said. "It's not just that I was working with them or that he was my boss, he was a friend. He was like a father to me."

Several other Canadian schools went through the heartbreaking task Wednesday of determining whether any of their students were aboard the plane.

The University of Toronto confirmed six of its students appeared on the passenger manifest, while the University of Windsor said at least five names on the list were members of its student or research community.

Western University, Carleton, York, Waterloo, the University of Guelph, the University of British Columbia, Langara College in Vancouver, the University of Manitoba, Dalhousie University in Halifax and Montreal's Concordia University and Ecole de Technologie Superieure all confirmed students, alumni or faculty were among the dead.

The Boeing 737-800 was en route to Ukraine's capital when it went down.

Ukraine's Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko said the plane was carrying 63 Canadians, 82 Iranians, 11 Ukrainian passengers and crew, 10 Swedes, four Afghans, three Germans and three Britons. However, the final tally of Canadians could change as more information becomes available about those holding dual citizenship, Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said.

Trudeau promised the crash would be thoroughly investigated, adding that Champagne would be speaking with Iran's foreign minister.

Both Trudeau and Transport Minister Marc Garneau said it was too early to speculate on what caused the crash. Garneau said satellite data appeared to show the plane taking off normally, but it's clear that something "very unusual" happened shortly after.

"We cannot speculate at this point, there are a number of possibilities, and we will have to wait to obtain more information," Garneau said.

While university students featured prominently in the plane's passenger list, those reported dead hailed from all walks of life.

They included a dentist who worked in Aurora, Ont., and her daughter, an employee of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation and a high school student.

Northern Secondary School in Toronto held a moment of silence after announcing Grade 10 student Maya Zibaie was among those on board.

Some of those on the plane were newlyweds, returning from their weddings.

They included Siavash Ghafouri-Azar and Sara Mamani, Montreal-area residents and graduates of Concordia University's mechanical engineering program.

Gounash Pirniya, a close friend, said the pair had just gotten married in Iran and had recently bought a house together.

"They were successful, kind, honest and hardworking people," Pirniya said. "They were enjoying their life as Canadian citizens."

Fareed Arasteh, who was studying biology at Ottawa's Carleton University, had also just gotten married on Sunday, a family member confirmed.

Shayesteh Majdnia, a past president of the Iranian Heritage Society of Edmonton, said she was close friends with Shekoufeh Choupannejad, a gynecologist who died along with her two daughters, Saba Saadat and Sara Saadat.

Majdnia said she had spoken to Choupannejad's husband, who is still in Iran, for confirmation.

"She was the kindest person I had ever met," said Majdnia, speaking about Choupannejad. 

Several of the victims were on their way home to British Columbia, including a North Vancouver couple in their mid-50s.

Firouzeh Madani and Naser Pourshaban were both award-winning physicians in Iran, their niece Sara Hezarkhani said, and they were working towards getting their licenses to practice in Canada.

"No words can describe their personalities, their true spirit, the passion that they had for the work," said Hezarkhani.

Delaram Dadashnejad, 26, was studying at Langara College to become a dietitian because she was passionate about helping people with their health, said her friend Sia Ahmadi.

"She was a very loving and compassionate person with a very kind heart," he said. "I believe the world is not going to be the same place without her."

The crash comes in a region where tensions have been running high following the American assassination of a top Iranian general near Baghdad and retaliatory missile attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq. Ukrainian authorities initially said it appeared mechanical failure was to blame for the crash, but later walked that back, saying nothing has been ruled out. 

Global Affairs Canada warned against any non-essential travel to Iran "due to the volatile security situation, the regional threat of terrorism and the risk of arbitrary detention." The agency said Canadians, particularly those holding dual Canadian-Iranian citizenship, were at risk of being arbitrarily questioned, arrested and detained.

The plane, fully loaded with fuel for its 2, 300-kilometre flight, slammed into farmland near the town of Shahedshahr on the outskirts of Tehran. Videos show fires lighting up the darkened fields before dawn and rows of body bags laid out along the side of a road.

The plane had been delayed from taking off from Imam Khomeini International Airport by almost an hour. It never made it higher than 2,400 metres, data from the flight-tracking website FlightRadar24 indicates.

It is one of the deadliest air disasters involving Canadians.

— With files from Salmaan Farooqui, Colin Perkel, Teresa Wright, Liam Casey, Bob Weber, Colette Derworiz, Brenna Owen, Laura Kane and The Associated Press

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 8, 2020.

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version misspelled the last name of victim Evin Arsalani.