TEHRAN: An Iranian passenger plane crashed Sunday moments after takeoff from Tehran, killing 39 people on board and narrowly avoiding many more deaths when it plummeted near a busy market.
The plane was headed to the eastern city of Tabas, the IRNA and Fars news agencies said, when it crashed at 9:18 am (0448 GMT), after leaving Mehrabad airport.
It triggered a fireball when it smashed into the capital’s Azadi neighbourhood, close to where hundreds of military families live, and only a few hundred metres (yards) from a row of shops.
Iran’s deputy transport minister, Ahmad Majidi, said the Antonov An-140 turboprop plane had 40 passengers, including six children, and eight crew on board.
The accident killed 39 people and injured nine, according to the latest official toll. A fire official initially said all on board had been killed.
The aircraft was operated by Sepahan Airlines, and a tail section bearing the company’s dolphin logo could be seen sticking out of the road as security forces cordoned off the crash site where firefighters had doused the flames.
Black smoke billowed from the mass of burnt out and twisted metal, with officials saying the plane hit a wall and trees.
“The scene was terrible, with the back of the plane in the middle of the street,” one witness said.
“But we were lucky because there was a market 500 metres away and a lot of people were there.”
Another witness told state television: “I was on my motorbike and I heard something behind me. I turned round and it was a plane, so I got on to the ground because it was so close.
“With other people, we ran to try to save the passengers but there were two or three loud explosions and a huge fire.”
Mehrabad airport, near central Tehran, is by far the country’s busiest domestic hub, serving routes to all major Iranian cities.
Most international passenger flights take off from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport, which is farther west of the capital.
Alireza Jahangirian, the head of Iran’s civil aviation authority, said: “The plane crashed in trees. There were no casualties on the ground.”
An investigation is under way, he added.
The Ukrainian-designed An-140 is intended for regional use, has a range of around 2,400 kilometres (1,500 miles) and can carry up to 52 people. Iranian airlines are one of the plane’s biggest users.
The Isna news agency reported that the plane in Sunday’s crash had been assembled under licence by an Iranian company in Isfahan, 450 kilometres south of Tehran.
Later Sunday, President Hassan Rouhani ordered the grounding of all domestically produced An-140s.
“The president has asked for a complete report from the transport ministry, and in the meantime has ordered a halt to all flights by this type of aircraft,” IRNA reported.
Iran had nine locally built Antonov An-140s before Sunday’s crash.
Iran has suffered several air crashes in recent years, blamed on ageing planes, poor maintenance and a shortage of new parts because of international sanctions.
Iranian airlines, including state-run operators, are short of finance and have seen business suffer because of banking restrictions imposed on the Islamic republic by the United States and Europe.
Iran’s last major air crash was in January 2011, when an Iran Air Boeing 727 shattered on impact while attempting an emergency landing in a snowstorm in the northwest, killing 77 people.
And in July 2009, a Russian-made jetliner crashed shortly after taking off from the capital, killing all 168 people on board.