Three minutes after its departure from Imam Khomeini International Airport, on the outskirts of Tehran, Flight PS752 lost all radio contact. The 176 passengers and crew onboard would never make it to their destination in Kyiv, Ukraine.
After days of denials, the Iranian regime admitted it “unintentionally” destroyed the airliner and said air defence operators mistook the civilian aircraft for an incoming American cruise missile. Here we look at the timeline of events as they unfolded.
Villagers in Shahedshahr on the outskirts of Tehran were just waking up and switching on their televisions to the morning news. In the night, the Iranian military had fired 22 missiles at US bases in neighbouring Iraq in retaliation for the drone strike that killed their general Qassim Soleimani. The pictures of rockets lighting up the night sky blazed across TV news channels:
Then just after 6.15am local time, with Tehran still plunged in darkness, all hell broke loose. Din Mohammad Qassemi, a local villager watching the TV, heard an almighty explosion.
“All the houses started to shake. There was fire everywhere,” said Mr Qassemi. “At first I thought (the Americans) have hit here with missiles and went in the basement as a shelter.”
It wasn’t, however, a US strike; but a passenger aircraft, fully loaded with fuel, that had crashed into fields and a canal nearby.
According to FlightRadar24, the plane that had been delayed in taking off by an hour, was heading north west after take-off but never reached higher than 8,000 feet:
Mobile phone footage shows the aircraft against the night sky seemingly on fire. A distant orange glow can be seen moving across the sky, arcing downwards for 30 seconds before the aircraft erupts in a massive ball of flame that lights up the whole neighbourhood:
How did it happen
A military statement said the plane was mistaken for a “hostile target” after it turned toward a “sensitive military centre” of the Revolutionary Guard. The military was at its “highest level of readiness,” it said, amid the attacks on the US.
Ukrainian investigators have disputed the claim that it turned out of its flight path, however, and air safety officials have said it turned north in an apparent attempt to return to the airport only after it was 1hit.
The culprit appears to be a Russian-made SA-15 ‘Tor M-1’ SAM system based near the Mehrabad Airbase on the outskirts of Tehran.
Photographs from the morning of January 9, which claimed to be from the crash site, showed the distinctive tail section and nose cone of the 9K331 missile fired by the SA-15.
A short-range mobile defence SAM, the SA-15 is designed to be effective without being linked up to a wider national air defence radar picture.
The most likely scenario is that a badly-trained or inexperienced crew of an SA-15, scared of being hit as part of a retaliatory US strike following the ballistic missile attacks on bases in Iraq, made a series of tragic and incorrect assumptions when PS752 appeared on their radar screen.
Perhaps operating with many communications systems switched off to avoid being detected and targeted by the US, they might have had a reduced situational awareness picture.
Where did the aircraft come down
Journalists who reached the crash site saw a wide field of field of debris scattered across farmland, the dead lying among shattered pieces of the aircraft. Their possessions, that included a child’s cartoon-covered electric toothbrush and a stuffed animal, as well as luggage and electronics, were strewn everywhere.
What happened next
Initially Iranian officials denied shooting down the aircraft, insisting that all their missiles were accounted for.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, finally released a statement on Saturday – four days after the incident – admitting Iran’s military was to blame for shooting down the plane, but insisting he was not involved in misleading the world.
“As soon as the supreme leader was informed of the catastrophic mistake” he ordered the truth to “be made known to the people explicitly and honestly,” the semi-official Fars news agency reported.
In an official statement on his website, he ordered the military to address “shortcomings” and expressed “sincere condolences” to families of the victim.
But it did not quell the public’s anger and hundreds took to the streets in protest against the regime.
Crowds of students gathered outside a central Tehran university to denounce the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the elite military force answerable directly to the supreme leader. “Shame on you,” they shouted. “End your rule over the country.”
Britain’s Ambassador to Iran Rob Macaire, was arrested and held for several hours for attending the vigil for the victims. Authorities claimed Mr Macaire had been inciting the protesters against the Iranian government. But video from the event shows the ambassador looking anxious and British officials said he left the campus shortly after it was filmed.
Two female protesters were reportedly shot and wounded as protests continued on Sunday. Video circulating on social media appeared to show they had been shot in the legs.
“Oh my God, she’s bleeding nonstop!” one person shouts. Another shouts: “Bandage it!” Photos and video after the incident show pools of blood on the sidewalk.
The fresh protests come weeks after Iranian forces killed hundreds, and possibly more than a thousand, civilian demonstrators who took to the streets across the country in November in protest against the Islamic Republic.